Chapter Eleven

 

 

 

 

    The Apocalypse was finally free of the repair dock. Six weeks after her near fatal battle with the spire, Alliance engineers had declared her spaceworthy again. The crew of the Apocalypse had also suffered in what had almost been her last battle, of an original compliment of seventy-five crewers, only twenty-eight would join her out of the repair dock. Furthermore, only two of the modified B-wings known as the four riders of the Apocalypse, survived their last ride. The destroyed B-wings having been replaced by a pair of standard X-wings.

    As a result of the high number of casualties among the officers of the Apocalypse, her command staff had to be almost completely replaced. The late Captain Arkin had been replaced by the newly promoted Captain Challis ex-commander of base station Heracles. Other key personnel that had been recently promoted included: Executive Officer Commander StJohn Hawk, Chief Engineer Ensign Rathbone Loegin, and Marine Commander Captain Carek Argonaut.

    The team would however no longer include Rex and Roberts, for they had decided to leave the Alliance. Rex had decided that after attending officer's school, that he would rather return to his first love, that of tramp freighter captain. He and Roberts pooled their credits and purchased an old stock light and left the day before the Apocalypse left the repair dock.

    The Apocalypse's first mission since clearing the repair dock would be to conduct negotiations with the Mon-Calamari. The meeting would be held in a remote area of the Empire and would concern the Mon-Calamari desire to further assist the Alliance.

    During the outbound trip to the rendezvous, the Apocalypse responded to controls well and the trip was accomplished without problem. The Mon-Calamari had arrived ahead of time in one of their beautiful passenger ships that had been converted into a warship.

    "Signal our guests that we will be docking in fifteen minutes." Said Captain Challis. When she received acknowledgment from the communications officer, she turned to face her staff. "We are about to begin very important negotiations. None of you, nor I are experienced diplomats. We have however been trusted to do what's best for the Alliance. We will meet in dress uniforms in ten minutes. Any questions? Very well, dismissed."

 

    "Dress uniforms in ten minutes, has she lost her mind?" Said Rathbone as the members of Team Bantha that had been assigned to the crew of the Apocalypse, rushed back to their quarters to change.

    "Have you forgotten that she's a Jedi?" Responded Lazarus.

    "Or do think that she's so bedazzled by your technical abilities that she doesn't mind a little insubordination?" Added Kyle. "I think you're the one whose lost their mind. Now get a move on!"

    The team and select members of the crew of the Apocalypse, met with the Mon-Calamari aboard the Mon-Cal cruiser Hope. The meeting was drawn out as each clause was covered in meticulous detail. After eight hours of negotiations, Captain Challis pulled StJohn aside.

    "This is going to take several more hours to conclude," She said. "and I had wanted to contact the mining cartels on the planet De'lamar while we were in the area. I want you to get team Bantha on the Spectre, get to De'lamar, and see if you can negotiate mineral rights for the Alliance without letting them know that."

    "You got it Skipper," Said StJohn. "anything to get out of that meeting and out of this monkey suit."

    The Spectre launched twenty minutes later with StJohn Hawk, Rathbone Loegin, Carek Argonaut, Ardent Belial Mo'dugalozen, Lazarus Maxenties, and Kyle on board. It was only a two hour hyperjump to the De'lamar system from the rendezvous point, and the jump was accomplished without mishap.

    "De'lamar Traffic Control," Said Carek from the co-pilot's seat. "this is the free trader Spectre requesting landing clearance. Over"

    "Free Trader Spectre assume parking orbit alpha alpha niner two four and state your business here on De'lamar."

    "We have to tell Traffic Control why we're here," Said Ardent who always came up to the bridge to observe landings and departures. "what kind of planet is this anyway?"

    "A busy one, going by the number of bulk transports both in system and in orbit." Said StJohn. "I guess they don't have time for ships that just want to engage in idle chatter."

    "So they screen them in orbit. Very efficient." Added Carek. "Well we have to tell him something soon or he is going to get suspicious."

    "Let me talk to them," Said StJohn. "De'lamar Traffic Control, we are here to establish a trading contract for high grade copper and tungsten ore."

    "Free trader Spectre, understand your wish to negotiate a trading contract. State whom you are negotiating for."

    StJohn looked at Carek. "Now what do I say?"

    "Uh..." Carek thought furiously. "Bespin! Tell him the Bespin Trading Cartel."

    StJohn turned back to the comm panel. "We represent the Bespin Trading Cartel, and we would prefer not to discuss any further business details on an open frequency. If you get where I'm coming from."

    "We understand Spectre. You are clear to land docking bay one ninety four."

    When the Spectre touched down, a group of security men met the team as they walked down the loading ramp.

    "Welcome to De'lamar." Said Security Chief Robinson. "It is our policy that no weapons are allowed. You may leave your weapons on board your ship or you can turn them in to security."

    "Why do I feel that I've heard this song before." Thought Carek as he recalled the team's visit to Aldaraan.

    "We will leave our weapons on the ship. Thank you." Said StJohn. "We would speak to the head of your mining cartel to setup the contract we talked about."

    "The Director is not on planet, he is inbound from Bespin and will be here in a few hours. I can take you on a tour of our facilities and then you may wait in the foyer of his office if you like."

    "We would like that very much." Said Ardent. "Lead on good sir."

    The tour lasted thirty minutes, it consisted of a view of the mines themselves, the smelting plant, the storage facilities, and as they returned to where the tour had started, the Admin building. The team was then shown a comfortable conference room.

    "The Director will be here in a little over a hour, please make yourselves comfortable." Said their guide Robinson.

    "Thank you again Chief Robinson," Said StJohn. "we look forward to meeting the Director."

    When Robinson left, StJohn turned to the team. "Impressions?"

    Before anyone could speak Carek staggered as if struck and gasped. "Something's wrong...I just felt a strong disturbance in the Force. I think we're in trouble."

    "Do you have any clear ideas as to the nature of the disturbance?" Asked Lazarus.

    "No, but I will try to see if the Force will give me a clearer impression."

    "I don't know anything about the Force," Said Rathbone. "but our hosts have been nice enough to put us in a room with a computer terminal, and I think its time to let our fingers do the walking. Come on Kyle you're mister security by-pass and I'm going to need your help."

    "Sure thing Rath, I want to know what's going on too."

    Thus they began traveling two completely different paths to learn the truth. Kyle and Rathbone took the more mundane path of breaking through the computer's security to sift through their host's files. Carek took the path less traveled, by searching with the Force to see what was to be, or since the future is always in motion, what was likely to be.

    Carek sat stiffly and concentrated. He then closed his eyes, when he spoke again, he spoke slowly with a dream-like quality to his voice. "Danger! Three-emm move the ship closer! Blasters everywhere! ARRGH! I'm hit!"

    Carek slumped in his seat and Lazarus rushed to his side.

    "Carek are you okay?"

    "Yeah, I'll be fine I guess." Carek exhaled heavily. "At least I'll be fine until I get hit."

    "You yourself said that you would be seeing only a possible future. You said that actions taken now can change that future."

    "You keep very good track of what I say don't you?" Smiling now Carek turned to the team.

    "We've got to get out of here guys. I saw extreme danger for us if we stay."

    "Do you know what the danger is?" Said StJohn.

    "I've got a good idea," Rathbone said from the computer terminal. "it looks like our hosts have been sending large amounts of ore to Coruscant, so it's a safe bet that the danger you sense is an Imperial ambush."

    "So then let's bug out while we still have the chance." Said Lazarus.

    Ardent walked over to the door and found it locked. "Looks like our hosts like us so much that they don't want us to leave." He said.

    "I think I can fix that." Said Kyle as he went to work on the lock.

    Fifteen seconds later the door opened, surprising the two men guarding the door.

    "Wh..Where do think your going?" The brighter of the two men asked.

    Carek responded with an imperious voice that he had been taught by both his noble father and by the Alliance Command and Staff school that he had just attended prior to being promoted to major.

    "My associates and I are returning to our ship to obtain the copy of the Bespin Trading Cartel's perspectus to show your Director when he arrives. You don't want to keep the Director waiting do you?"

    "I..Uh, No sir!"

    "Good. Mister Hawk and Mister Loegin will stay here while we're gone."

    "Uh, sir?"

    "What is it now?"

    "You have to have an escort, sir."

    "Very well get a move on."

    Carek, Kyle, Lazarus, Ardent, and the now thoroughly confused guard headed for the Spectre. While the rest of the team were headed to the ship, Rathbone and StJohn continued to search the computer for information.

    "Well look at that." Said Rathbone.

    "Oh bloody great," Responded StJohn. "a pair of Imperial shuttles and a Victory class Star Destroyer. Those guys better hustle or we'll get a close up look at the Imperial facilities at the Kessel spice mines."

    "I can signal them and let them know what's going on."

    "Go ahead, they've got to know."

    Ardent's comlink beeped softly.

    "Go ahead." He whispered.

    "It looks like a couple of old friends are on their way to visit you." Said Rathbone hoping fervently that Ardent would understand what he was trying to say without being so obvious that the guard would understand.

    "Friends?"

    "Yeah friends, and they've got their big brother looking over their shoulder."

    "Ohhh those friends, don't worry we'll handle it."

    The group had just reached the blast doors to the hanger, when Ardent pulled out his holdout blaster, shot the guard and grabbed the fallen blaster carbine.

    "We got a couple of what I guess to be shuttles inbound and a larger ship in orbit." He said.

    "Well then, I better get this door open." Said Kyle as opened the blast door's access panel.

    "Now it's time for us to get out." Said StJohn.

    "I had hoped you would say that," Said Rathbone. "and I have just the plan to get past the guard." He entered the office's fresher and pulled out his holdout blaster. "This ought to get his attention." He thought as he fired a bolt at the bowl of the toilet.

    The muffled 'WHUMP' followed by an indignant, "What kind of place is this!" Brought the guard running into the room and right into a blaster bolt.

    "Lets go!" Said StJohn as he scooped up the guard's blaster.

    "How come you get the carbine? It was my idea."

    "Why should I deny you the use of that holdout blaster, when you obviously have so much skill with it?"

    "Oh never mind, let's get to the ship."

   

    On the bridge of the Victory class Star Destroyer Revenge Lieutenant Rahos smiled. “Sir, the capture teams are in place, a squadron of TIEs have just launched, and all tractor beams are spun up and ready.”

    “Proceed.” Was all the man in the black form fitting suit said.

    “I’ve waited a long time for this sir, these rebels have eluded capture far too long.” Rahos turned and spoke into his comlink and began issuing orders.

    The man in black canted his head to one side concentrating as if trying to hear something that was almost audible. “There is more to you than I’ve been led to believe.” He thought. “The emperor will be pleased to find one so close to completing his training.”

    The silent figure watched a squadron of TIE fighters banking down toward the planet and waited to see how the capture would play out.

 

    "Ready when you are Carek." Said Kyle from outside the hanger bay door. The team had managed to avoid contact with De’lamar security and Kyle was ready with his security lock out over ride. 

    Carek felt a touch of deja vu as he took Ardent's comlink. "Three-emm, bring the ship as close to door as you can."

    The familiar, albeit muffled sound of blasters could be heard even over the repulsor drive of the Spectre and the frantic beeping of Three-emm.

    "What's wrong with him?" Asked Lazarus.

    "He keeps saying, 'They're shooting at me. They're shooting at me.' I guess this is the first time that he's ever been shot under fire." Into his comlink Carek said. "When you’re as close as you can get, set down with the ramp facing the blast door and give us two long and two short beeps."

    More frantic beeps and then what Carek hoped was the binary equivalent of an okay. Kyle sat waiting with the two wires that would open the blast doors.

    "I'm ready when you are." He nervously repeated.

    Carek's comlink beeped with the required two long two short signal from Three-emm.

    "Do it."

    Kyle touched the two wires together and the huge blast doors sprang open. The sound of the blasters of two full platoons of stormtroopers no longer muffled was deafening.

    "By the Force the blasters are everywhere." Thought Carek as the four rebels ran for the loading ramp ten meters away.

    Kyle and Lazarus dodging wildly managed to make it across the open space and into the ship. Ardent and Carek followed also dodging madly but this time the troopers were ready.

    "Ardent break right!!" Screamed Carek as a squad of stormtroopers popped up from behind some crates.

    Ardent wheeled to face the new threat, and a bolt grazed him across the left shoulder, as Carek turned toward Ardent he was hit himself. Ardent stunned by the shock of the near miss, still managed to reach the ship.

    "ARRGH I'm hit!" Thought Carek fighting against the darkness trying to surround him. "I can't blackout!" He said as he staggered on and reached into the Force to tap the energy that surrounds every living thing and to use that energy to keep himself moving, basking in the glow of the Force, Carek used that energy to block away the pain and ran onto the ship with blaster bolts spattering all around him.

    Kyle, Lazarus, and Ardent had reached the gunner's seats of the Spectre and had begun to engage the stormtroopers who had set up heavy repeat blasters in the hanger. Carek ran forward to the bridge and activated the navigation computer to begin plotting their course back to the Apocalypse.

    "Lazarus."

    "What? Kyle."

    "Look behind that cluster of stormtroopers at eleven o'clock."

    "You mean those barrels?"

    "Yeah. Those barrels are marked 'Flammable handle with care.'"

    "So what's the plan?"

    "When I give the signal, you unload on those repeat blasters and I'll handle with care."

    Kyle nudged Ardent to clue him in on the plan and the turrets of the Spectre shifted slightly.

    "Now!"

    The guns of the Spectre spoke as one catching the Imperials completely off guard. Lazarus trusted to the Force and destroyed all four heavy blasters that had been causing the most trouble. Ardent concentrated on crippling the two shuttles and managed to cause heavy damage to both.

    Kyle's shots to the causal observer seemed to be way off target, until the palletized barrels of chemicals began exploding. The two shuttles were caught in the blast and left severely damaged, a third of the stormtroopers were also in the blast radius, which markedly reduced the volume of fire on the Spectre.

    While the stormtroopers were recovering from the effects of the secondary chemical explosions, Rathbone and StJohn reached the blast doors. Unfortunately, three stormtroopers managed to reach the boarding ramp ahead of the two rebels and before Rathbone or StJohn could fire, they boarded the Spectre.

    StJohn reached for his comlink as he and Rathbone raced for the ship.

    "Hawk to Spectre. Intruder alert. You've got three bogies entering your six."

    "Roger Hawk." Said Carek. "I'll handle them."

    Carek hopped out of the pilot's seat and ran back toward the loading ramp, pausing long enough to run past his cabin and call his lightsaber to him with the Force before engaging the two troopers advancing on the bridge. Two lightning fast strokes and the two troopers were down. Carek then moved aft, where he met StJohn coming up the ramp. Rathbone was bringing up the rear from where he had trusted to the Force to lay down covering fire during their run for the ship.

    "I got two. The other one must have headed for engineering." Said Carek.

    "Rathbone quit showing off," Said StJohn. "there's one more in engineering and the Force only knows what he's doing there."

    The three rebels found Ardent had reached engineering before them. He had his vibroblade drawn and was sneaking up on the lone trooper that was busy wrecking the control panels of the Spectre with his blaster rifle. Ardent caught the trooper completely by surprise and ran him through before the trooper could react.

    "YAAAAHOOO!" A triumphant Ardent bellowed. "That's the first time I've dropped somebody with this thing."

    "We're all proud of you, Ardent." Said Rathbone through clinched teeth. "But, if you would spare a moment from your wardance, you'll note the sea of red lights on the status board indicating that, WE'VE GOT BLOODY LITTLE TO CELEBRATE! YOU BACKWATER BONEHEAD!"

    "Backwater bonehead? I'll give you a backwater bonehead!"

    Carek could see where this would lead. "BOTH OF YOU SHUTUP! We've got too many problems and not enough time for this nonsense. Rathbone you get on the damage. Ardent man your turret. StJohn let's go."

    The team taken aback by the power in Carek's voice, immediately moved out to their designated posts. The trooper had damaged the sublight drive and the lateral thruster array enough that StJohn would have no additional maneuverability and precious little speed.

    "This thing handles like a cargo barge." Said StJohn as the Spectre lifted on its repulsor drive.

    "Rathbone's on it StJohn," Carek Replied from the co-pilot's seat where he was beginning the astrogation plot. "just stay low and do the best you can."

    The guns of the Spectre however were undamaged. Kyle firing the heavy laser blasted an opening through the hanger door as Lazarus and Ardent kept up the fire on the now disorganized stormtroopers. When the Spectre cleared the hanger the miners decided to get in the act.

    "Ground based laser turrets tracking us!" Said StJohn as he yanked the lumbering Spectre into a tighter turn.

    "We see them," Said Kyle. "Laz, Ardent get the one on the left."

    The three turrets of the Spectre spoke once and the laser turrets were gone.

    "Nice shooting." Said Carek. "but we got more trouble. Sensors show a squadron of TIE/Ins inbound at four o'clock."

    StJohn began whipping through the best evasive course that the damaged Spectre could handle. The TIEs closed in easily, but then the gunners of the Spectre opened fire. The TIEs never really had a chance, all three gunners used the Force to guide their opening shots and the result was six TIEs destroyed and three more crippled. The TIEs, to give them credit, still pressed home the attack and managed to cause heavy damage before being wiped out, of the squadron's original twelve TIEs, only three crippled fighters escaped the relentless fire from the Spectre.

    The rebels were just beginning to relax, when the proximity alarm went off and the Spectre was bracketed by turbolaser fire.

    "What in the blue blazes!" Snarled StJohn as he forced the protesting Spectre away from the Victory class Star Destroyer that had sneaked up on them while they had fought the TIEs. "Carek how much longer for the plot?"

    "Too long! I'll have to take us in on a partial!"

    Carek activated the intercom. "All hands stand by for unplotted hyperjump." Turning back to StJohn.

    "Go."

    The Spectre leapt into hyperspace just before the Star Destroyer's tractor beams could lock on. The Spectre had escaped.

 

    Lieutenant Rahos tensed and waited for the eruption, when it didn’t come he turned toward his commander his eyebrow raised in a silent question.

    “If you were expecting a tantrum you will not see one from me Lieutenant. I was not trained by Lord Vader and do not believe in them. Your capture plan was sound, but it appears you have underestimated your quarry again. I found that whole exercise quite informative.”

    “Informative sir?” Said Rahos in spite of himself.

    “Oh yes, your failure here tells me that this ‘Team Bantha’ is indeed a worthy quarry. I also got a good read on the Jedi that Maldamon never seemed to understand. Please set a course for the following system, you will next encounter our quarry there.”

    “Right away sir!” Rahos barked as he took the proffered datapad and watched the dark figure leave the bridge. “This is not what I was expecting when I was assigned here.”

 

    "When the Spectre dropped out of hyperspace," Said Carek into the debriefing log terminal in the conference room back on the Apocalypse. "I used the Force to replot the correct course back to the Apocalypse. Total travel time: seventeen hours.

    "One final report. While on the planet, I sensed a disturbance in the Force that had a distinctively evil aspect. During our escape I again felt this disturbance emanating from the planet's surface. I can only speculate on the nature of the disturbance, but it is my opinion that we were being shadowed by a Dark Jedi."

    Carek finished his debrief and closed down the terminal. He then rose form his seat and headed for his quarters.

    "The last thing in life I need is to have to face another Dark Jedi. Maldamon was better trained in the Force when I met him for the first time and despite everything I've learned in the last year, I get the distinct feeling that this new threat is going to outclass me again. At least Challis's negotiations with the Mon-Calamari were successful and we can look forward to their full support."

    Carek reached his quarters and sat on his bunk.

    "I understand the temptations of the Dark Side and why some Jedi fall down that path, I only wish that I could find a Master that I might be able combat the Dark Jedi on a more even setting."

    Carek sighed. "Well, who knows, the Force is mysterious, after all I met Obi-wan Kenobi a week after his 'death' so in my book that leaves anything possible."

    Carek then reached out with the Force, turned out the lights in his cabin and went to sleep.

 

    The most notable thing about the Apocalypse since Captain Challis had replaced the late Captain Arkin, was the laughter that once again graced her corridors. The Apocalypse had, under Captain Arkin, a reputation as the most miserable ship in the fleet and even though Captain Challis was a severe commander, she was far livelier than Arkin ever was. Add to that fact, that a great many of the Apocalypse's crew were new and never had to serve with the brutal Arkin, a man-who had he not been killed-would have in all likelihood been tried for war crimes, gave the Apocalypse a whole new outlook.

    In conjunction with the new found joie de vrie of the ship's crew, the recreation room had become the ship's social gathering place again.

    Captain Carek Argonaut entered the Rec room hoping to find some of the members of team Bantha, instead he found Captain Challis painting.

    "Good afternoon Captain, I didn't know that you painted."

    "Actually this is my first attempt," She said. "I've had dreams of this thing for the last few nights, and I wanted to try and copy it down while it was still vivid. Here take a look."

    "Well, that's certainly evil looking," He said as he sidled around to see what see had done. "you said that you've been dreaming of this thing?"

    "Yes, actually it was almost like being contacted telepathically. I don't know what it means, I've never seen anything like it before."

    "I have." Said a voice from behind them.

    Turning, they found Sharra Aurora the Seleian light dancer standing behind them with her head tilted to one side as she inspected Challis's work.

    "There are a few minor differances in the face and shape of the wings, but I'm sure I've seen this before."

    "Where?" Demanded Challis.

    "Uh...It's a Ma'olrin priest idol, from Ma'olrin four in the Kiosk system."

    "The Kiosk system is under Imperial occupation." Said Carek, now uneasy as he remembered the last time they visited the Kiosk system and the cost to team Bantha.

    Challis looked thoughtfully at Aurora for a few moments before speaking.

    "Are you certain about this idol being from Ma'olrin four?"

    "Absolutely."

    "Captain Argonaut."

    "Sir?"

    "I'm now very curious about this Ma'olrin priest idol. I want you to get your team ready and see if you can track this idol down. I have the distinct impression that this item is Force related and I don't want it falling into the Empire's hands."

    "We'll be ready to go in twenty minutes."

    "Carry on."

 

    As promised the Spectre departed twenty minutes later. Team Bantha on this occasion would consist of Carek, Lazarus Maxenties, and Ardent Belial Mo'duaglozen as the Marine detachment. The flight crew of the Spectre would consist of Leland Archimedes, reassigned back to the Apocalypse when the two X-wings were assigned, and Rathbone Loegin as engineer. Kyle was in officer's school and would miss this mission.

 

    StJohn Hawk had found his true calling as exec of the Apocalypse, he had requested and had been granted that transfer.

 

    The trip to Ma'olrin four was delayed for two hours, by a close call in hyperspace that dumped the Spectre back into realspace and caused some damage to the hyperdrive.

    "ARCHIMEDES!" Bellowed Rathbone. "What have you done this time!"

    "Okay, okay, I was off by point two seven on the X axis when we left. I'll replot and we'll be there in nine hours."

    "You pilots never learn," Said Rathbone shaking his head. "excuse me, I have to realign the port hyperspace motivator, Try and get the plot right this time.

    "You bet Rath, I'll get right on it."

    When Leland was sure that Rathbone was gone he turned to Carek. "What a grouch."

    "He's not the only one who's getting tired of you constantly misplotting Leland. If you will recall we are going to the Kiosk system, it was a misplot on your part that cost us the Bantha, and that in turn resulted in Ardent's and Rex's capture. Ardent may forgive you the torture he endured and the bionics that he had to have implanted, but I don't think Rex will ever forgive you for losing the Bantha." Carek fixed Leland with a piercing stare. "And I will not accept any more excuses. You screw up one more simple plot, and I will see you assigned to cleaning the Tauntaun pens back on Planeris. Is that clear?"

    "You've changed Carek," Responded a saddened Leland. "You've changed a lot, but I get the message.

    Rathbone got the motivator aligned in record time and when he returned to the bridge, Leland was ready.

    "Course plotted and laid in." He said.

    "Laid in to where?"

    "I've handled that Rathbone," Said Carek. "if Leland says the course is ready, I believe him."

 

    True to Leland's word, the course was plotted correctly and the Spectre arrived at Ma'olrin four without any further mishap. Ma'olrin four was a very primitive planet with no navigation aids in system. Leland was forced to pick his way slowly through the outer planets, while Carek scanned the sensors to avoid any surprises, natural or manmade.

    "I'm getting a Mayday!" Said Carek as he reached for the comm panel to boost the gain on the signal. "High signal strength, low output. They're close."

    "Can you pick anything out?" Said Ardent who had as usual come up to the bridge for the landing.

    "The signal's badly garbled, all I can get is 'free trader Piety.'"

    "Well, lets see if we can find them." Said Leland.

    The Spectre accelerated through the system and homed in on the Piety's signal.

    "There." Shouted Ardent as he pointed out the roman candle of a ship starting its fiery re-entry.

    "We're too late." Added Leland.

    "No wait," Said Carek. "I'm picking up the transponder of an escape pod. Leland course 234 mark 6."

    The Spectre banked sharply and dove down in pursuit through the thick and mildly corrosive red tinged atmosphere, landing no more than thirty meters from and thirty seconds after the pod touched down.

    "Sensors show the atmosphere to be non-breathable," Said Carek after a quick scan. "but the rest of the environment seems safe. Looks like breather masks are in order."

    "Okay Carek, who's going outside?" Asked Leland.

    "I'll go, just in case the sensors missed something."

    "I want to go too." Said Ardent.

    "Okay get a mask and met me in the airlock."

    The airlock cycled open to the view of a wide dry inhospitable looking plain.

    "Almost like Tosca, except worst." Said Ardent. "Sensors didn't show anything poisonous in the air did they?"

    "No just four percent oxygen, eighty seven percent nitrogen, and nine percent trace gasses." Replied Carek. "If they had twelve percent

more oxygen we wouldn't need these breather masks."

    "Looks like we have company."

    Carek looked to where Ardent was pointing and saw that one man had exited the escape pod and was walking toward the ship.

    "I don't know who you are," Said the stranger. "but I can say that I'm very glad your here. Ma'olrin four is not a pleasant place to be stranded. Marcus Childers at your service."

    "You'll excuse me if I ask what happened to your ship before we engage in pleasantries."

    "I can understand that. I was attacked by a ship that was shaped like a bird of prey." Childers chuckled at this point. "They caught me in the fresher, the sublight was wrecked on the first hit and I never had a chance to recover. I sent the distress and headed for the pod. Now you know as much as I do."

    Carek looked at Childers intently, but he did not use the Force to search through Childer's mind, but he did use the Force to talk to Ardent telepathically.

    "Take his weapons."

    "You'll understand if we take your weapons before we let you board."

    "Under the circumstances, Yes I do."

    As Childers handed over his weapons Carek reached a decision.

    "Pleased to make your acquaintance. I'm Carek, this is Ardent, welcome aboard the Spectre."

    "Gods, I was hoping you'ed say that."

    Childers climbed into the airlock and stood quietly as the lock cycled.

    "So, if its not being too nosy, what where you doing in this Gods forsaken piece of space."

    "Going to Cypryn to do a little speculative trading," Answered Ardent smoothly. "just happened to come out of hyperspace a little too soon and picked up your distress."

    "Spec trading? That's tough on an Imperial planet."

    "Uh...is there anything we can do to help besides giving you a ride?" Said Carek.

    "I'd like to see if there's anything left of my cargo."

    "Cargo?" Asked an incredulous Ardent. "What could you possibly been carrying that could have survived a flaming re-entry?"

    "Actually what's left of my ship can replace my cargo."

    "Okay, I think you've lost us both now." Said a now equally incredulous Carek.

    "Ma'olrin four is very poor in metals. The natives pay in high grade petrochemicals for any kind of metal. I was carrying a cargo of scrap metal to trade. I guess my whole ship meets that discription now."

    The airlock opened and Carek made introductions all around. Since Childers knew the locals, the team wanted to use him to make contact with the priests, so it was agreed to fly him over to the wreck of his ship. It only took ten minutes to reach what was left of the Piety, which had crashed seven hundred kilometers to the southwest.

    "Well it looks like I've got enough left to make a decent cargo, if I can just get it to them." Said Childers after exiting the Spectre.

    "I think that we can help you with that," Said Ardent. "after all when you're doing speculative trading, it doesn't matter where the cargo comes from. We'll take this cargo to your dealer, and we'll take whatever cargo you trade for, to wherever your going to."

    "Now that sounds like a deal! I'll give you ten percent of the cargo's value when we get to Bespin."

    "Thirty percent."

    "Twenty."

    "Done!" Smiled Ardent as he shook Childers' hand. "Now lets get this stuff loaded."

 

    When the Spectre was loaded, Childers guided Leland to the nearest village. The Mal-ori were an amphibian race that possessed large deep chests, long thin limbs, and huge frog-like eyes. The village was a ragged cluster of huts that looked as primitive as was possible for a race that was considered sentient to build.

    "I'll talk to them first," Said Childers. "I know they look very primitive, but they're smart enough to know this isn't the Piety and I don't want to spook them out of a sale."

    Childers made contact with the chieftan and then motioned for the crew of the Spectre to come forward along with SM3PO so that all could follow along. Childers began talking to the chieftan and Sam translated.

    "These are starmen just like me, they will cherish your ancestor's memory as I do."

    The chieftan spread his long arms, then crossed them across his chest and bowed to each member of the team. Carek caught on and repeated the movement, the rest of the team followed Carek's lead and each member of the team mimicked the gesture completing the ritual of greeting to the chieftan's satisfaction.

    "Fellow starmen of Friend Childers, what may I do to help you?"

    Leland asked Sam to find out if the locals had seen a large metal bird in the skies recently.

    "The sky thundered with the crossing of a great starbird two hands of days ago."

    "The locals only have three fingers," Said Childers. "thus the guys that bushwacked the Piety have been here for six days."

    "Ask him if there is a tribal elder that we may speak to." Said Carek."

 

    "The Gifted One would be honored to meet with starmen. Please come with me."

    The chieftan took them across the village to a hut that boasted a skull of some insect-like creature. The chieftan stopped before the hut and called out in a warbling whistle. The Gifted One was a wizened Mal-ori wearing a tattered cape and leaning heavily on a staff made from an old repulsor sled linkage. The elder stood before the chieftan until the chieftan bowed low and turned toward the human visitors. The elder looked upon the humans for the first time and Carek sensed a wave of kindness radiating from the old Mal-ori. He smiled and Sam began translating.

    "You have traveled far to learn of the one known to us as the Ravisher. The Ravisher is an evil representation of a vision from an ancient obelisk that I saw in my youth. The idol that was carved long ago by the Gifted One of my youth, lies many plaktans from here. The chieftan must lend you grillas for your journey. Come I will chant the rite of discovery for you, so that you will be shielded from the evil that will plague you on your journey."

    The Gifted One hobbled into his hut and the rebels followed. Each was given a small carven stone and asked to drink from a mug of steaming herbs. To complete the rite the Gifted One called to each member of the team and rubbed a fragrant oil onto their head. As he finished each member he bade them farewell.

    Once Carek, the last to be anointed, exited the Gifted Ones's hut, the chieftan led them to the grilla pen. Grillas turned out to be a very large grasshopper-like insectoid riding beasts.

    "You've got to be kidding." Said Leland.

    "Don't offend the chieftan," Snapped Childers. "he is giving you a great honor by lending you these things. I know it's not the same as a repulsor sled, but it's all he has and you're just going to have to learn to like it."

    "But why can't we take the Spectre?"

    Childers began to get irritated.

    "The locals do not have any means of unloading cargo except manually, they can't work around repuslors, the frequency of the repulsors resonations damages their hearing. It will take them at least three days to unload the scrap metal and reload the minerals that we negotiated, I have to stay and supervise, so your ship is simply unavailable."

    "Come on Leland," chided Rathbone. "since when are you going to let someone say they can drive something that you can't drive?"

    "I can drive anything."

    "Well now's your chance to prove it." Said Childers.

    The rebels entered the grilla pen and where given a quick demonstration on how to control them. Once everyone was comfortable with their mount, the rebels headed out of the village and toward the low lying hills just barely visible in the distance.

 

    The trip dragged on through the day and into the next and into the next. The rebels had entered the low lying hills hours ago, but they were still several hours away from their goal.

    The monotony of the march was suddenly broken by a piercing shriek from above. Reacting to the sound the rebels spotted half-a-dozen reptilian flying creatures diving from the down from the nearest crag.

 

    "I'll start from the left!" Ardent yelled as he jumped free from his grilla.

    "I'll start from the right!" Answered Laz, as he too rolled off of his mount.

    Blasterfire ripped into the beasts from two sides, and when two of them fell smoking to the ground the rest broke off their attack for food that was easier to catch.

    The last few miles were up a very steep incline. The grillas were able to climb the grade with no problems at all. The riders however had to cling for their very lives to remain atop the wildly rocking beasts.

    "This is worse than one of Leland's astrogation plots." Muttered Rathbone.

    "I heard that!" Leland shot back. "If you kept the motivators aligned right I wouldn't have to compensate for them and maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't go on so many..."

    "I keep those motivators aligned four percent beyond factory specifications!" Interrupted Rathbone. "Don't you dare try and blame your incompetence on me!"

    "WILL YOU TWO IDIOTS SHUT UP!" Lazarus thundered. "We're almost to the top, or would you prefer to just fire off a few flares so that everyone on the whole flaming planet knows where we are."

    "Who are you calling an idiot!" Shouted Rathbone and Leland simultaneously. They paused, looked at each other and began to laugh. The rest of the team also short on patience, but long on respect for each other, saw the humor and soon the entire group, gave into the good hearty laugh.

    "I guess this trip has got us all on edge." Said Lazarus as his anger vented itself through laughter. "Sorry. However we are still near the top of this rise and I would recommend that we dismount and continue on foot."

    "Agreed." Leland chuckled. "I'll be glad to get back on my own two feet after riding these blasted beasties."

    The rebels dismounted and approached the rise on foot. The landscape at the top of the rise was a smoldering and blasted mesa that stretched on for kilometers through the hazy smoke caused by venting lava and steam.

    "Look there, just to the right of the obelisk." Said Laz.

    "Looks like repulsor sleds." Said Carek as he used the Force to enhance his vision. "I've never seen that model before. Okay everyone lets stay sharp."

    The rebels crossed the open field without sighting anyone.

    "I've seen this model before," Said Rathbone. "it's Aavian. They're an avian race, and..." Rathbone smacked himself in the forehead. "I guess I am an idiot! Aavians always design their ships to look like birds."

    "So that means that these are the guys who jumped Childers." Said Leland.

    Carek had been standing with his eyes unfocused while Rathbone berated himself. His eyes lost their glaze and he began to speak rapidly.

    "I've been feeling ill at ease since last night, I now know the source of that feeling. This place has a very strong sense of evil about it. I am certain the idol is still inside."

    "Okay that's good enough for me," Said Leland. "it’s been three days, Childers should be finished loading cargo. I'm calling Three-emm to bring the Spectre."

    The rest of the team agreed and in less than two hour the Spectre was sighted. Three-emm set the ship down forty meters from the obelisk, which was as close as he could get due to the unstable ground on the mesa.

    The team entered the cave and was forced to return to the Spectre for oxygen tanks. The oxygen levels in the underground cavern were just too depleted by the sulphur and lava fires for simple breather masks. The team reentered the cave and found a rough hewn corridor that eventually led to a counter balanced spiked gate bearing the grisly remains of four impaled Aavian raiders.

    "I guess they strayed too far from their element." Said Lazarus to no one in particular.

    "The gate is still pivoting freely, we we'll have to be very careful, or we'll end up like they did." Said Rathbone.

    "I think I can help," Said Carek. "I will telekinetically stabilize the gate and everyone should be okay."

    "Uh...Carek," Rathbone started gently. "I don't pretend to know anything about the Force, but who do you think is going to be the first to try your new theory?"

    Ardent spoke right up. "I'll go. I don't know anything about the Force either, but I'm fairly certain I can get through and if Carek thinks he can help, well then I say lets do it." Ardent dropped to the floor and began worming his way through the spikes and although Carek seemed to be completely absorbed in maintaining his concentration, he smiled when Ardent reached the other side.

    "Okay, no longer a theory. I'll go next."

    Leland followed Carek, then Lazarus and finally Rathbone.

    "Forgive me if I remain skeptical."

    "Not at all."

    Rathbone passed through easily, until there was a tremendous tremor that rippled through the caverns throwing Carek to the floor.

    "I can't hold it Rath, hurry."

    "Hurry? Is he kidding? I am...ARRRGH!"

    The gate swung free and sliced deeply into Rathbone's left leg. Rathbone crumpled from the shock and passed clean out.

    "I got him! I got him!" Yelled Leland as he pulled Rathbone free of the spike. "Quick, Laz get a medpac on him the damned thing got his artery."

    "I'm on it! The medpac isn't working. He's going to bleed out."

    Ardent added his medpac to the vicious wound to try and stop the fountaining loss of blood.

    "Hang in there Rath," Said Ardent. "I will not lose another engineer!" Slowly at first, then just as quickly as it started, the bleeding stopped and Rathbone started to stabilize.

    "He's still out, but he's going to make it." Said Leland.

    Carek reached out with the Force and nudged Rathbone awake.

    "I'm so sorry Rath, I just couldn't hold it stable with all that shaking."

    Through a drug induced smile Rathbone said. "You'll excuse me if I remain skeptical."

    "Yes Rathbone, I'll understand."

    The team regrouped and began following the corridor that now showed signs of advanced stone work. The corridor spiraled down three times to a depth of at least fifteen meters, before it ended in a rounded water filled cul-de-sac.

    "You aren't going to tell me that I lost ten percent of my total blood volume for nothing."

    "Just hold it Rath, there has to be a hidden room down here somewhere." Said Lazarus. "We just have to find it."

    "Yeah, that may be easier said than done." Added Leland. "Okay Carek you're the one who said the idol's still here. Where is it?"

    "The idol is beyond the far wall."

    "Oh great is passing through solid rock one of the Jedi tricks you've been hiding from us?"

    "I...I...know the idol is here. Please give me a minute to concentrate."

    Carek stood before the pool and opened his mind to the Force, reaching well beyond the five senses to see what had remained hidden for so long.

    "Of course. Of course. It's right in front of us."

    "And where might that be Carek?" Asked Rathbone.

    "Watch this my skeptical friend."

    Carek again reached out with the Force this time he concentrated on the water before him and with the rumbling of heavy gears, the pool lowered itself three meters, exposing an open corridor in the far wall of the pool.

    Rathbone stood quietly for a few seconds then turned to Carek. "I have to admit that you got me that time. Lead on my friend. Lead on."

    The corridor traveled on for twenty meters before opening on a huge vaulted chamber. In the center of the room the stood the idol, it's eyes winking grimly from the glow rods. The idol was just over a meter in height carved of some black obsidian like rock that seemed to drink in all available light. The eyes were made of multi-faceted gemstones that defied any specific color.

    "And I thought the painting was ugly." Said Ardent.

    "That pretty much sums up all I was going to say." Said Lazarus. "Lets get it and go."

    Lazarus started toward the idol.

    "I think I have a better idea." Said Carek. "I have a feeling that it would be bad to touch this thing. I'll just float it along and that way no one will be put in needless danger."

    "You and your Force," Harrumphed Rathbone. "The thing is a rock of Diety's sake. Look."

    Before anyone could intervene, Rathbone stepped up and lifted the idol above his head, where upon he began to stagger. He quickly put the idol down, and seemed none-the-worse for his encounter.

    "It's a lot heavier than it looks, I guess it was blood loss that made me so dizzy."

    "Look Rathbone, I would never try to tell you how to align a hyperdrive, will you please leave things that pertain to the Force to me?"

    "I have to admit you got me again. Lets try it your way."

    The rebels easily made it back through to the cul-de-sac and from there, back to the spiked gate. Carek lowered the idol and again stabilized the gate. This time there were no tremors and everyone cleared the gate without harm. Carek then floated the idol through the gate. The team then headed for the Spectre.

    Leland was the first to hear the approaching speederbikes. "Run for it! Three-emm prep for take off and see if you can bring the Spectre in closer!

    The sound of the approaching speeders was clear to all, as was the fact that the speeders would over take them before they reached the Spectre, whose engines were just beginning to spool up.

    "I've got your backs!" Lazarus shouted above the Spectre's engines.

    Lazarus then snapped off three quick shots that dropped one of the Imperial scouts from his bike, the rest then split up taking to whatever cover they could find.

    The rest of the team reached the loading ramp and Ardent ran straight for the laser cannon. Just as Carek went to board, something powerful telekinetically ripped the idol from his control.

    "By the Force what was that?" Thought Carek, as he reached deep within himself to try and regain control of the idol. Carek grabbed the idol and felt the idol torn from his grasp again. Thinking quickly he reached for his comlink.

    "ARDENT! TARGET THE IDOL, NOW!"

    Ardent had been keeping the Imperial forces pinned down and had destroyed another speeder and crippled an AT-ST. As soon as he heard Carek's call he swung on and blasted the idol into shards.

    The pieces of the idol were still falling, when Leland got the Spectre airborne. The Spectre easily shrugged off the fire from the remaining AT-ST and speeders and quickly reached orbit.

    Carek stood by the loading ramp as he tried to understand what had happened, when he sensed something familiar. A tremor in the Force that he recognized. "That's the same tremor as when we were escaping from De'lamar! Now I'm sure there's another Dark Jedi trailing us and this one is even stronger than Maldamon. I don't know if I'm ready for this."

    A flight of TIE/ins swooped in on the Spectre before she could clear the gravity well of Mal'orin. Childers destroyed one and left another crippled. Ardent and Lazarus each left one crippled. Carek got to the bridge while the TIEs were being dispatched and used the Force to jump to Bespin. The team sold Childers' cargo and as agreed received their twenty percent, which came to five thousand credits.

    The Spectre was ready to lift and her crew wase all aboard except for Leland who was standing in the docking bay with Childers.

    "Well it's been interesting." Said Childers.

    "That it has, if we're ever in the neighborhood we'll look for you." Said Leland.

    "I'll hold you to that. Clear skies."

    "See you later."

    Leland moved up the ramp as it closed. The Spectre then lifted and departed for her rendezvous with the Apocalypse.

 

    “Interesting.” Said Ky Vacendik the Dark Jedi commander of the Victory class star destroyer Revenge.

    “Sir?” Lieutenant Rahos replied.

    “I knew that my concentrating on the Mal’orin idol would send ripples in the Force that would draw in our quarry. I have to admit however that I thought this encounter would end with them in our custody.”

    Knowing he could speak freely with Vacendik, Rahos let out a long breath. “Sir, I’ve had that impression several times. These rebel pigs have more luck than any group of people have a right to have.”

    “If you think it is luck that allows them to elude us, then that explains why we keep failing Lieutenant. So many officers of the empire believe our own propaganda about the rebels that they arrogantly dismiss the rebel’s proven abilities. Look what happened to Grand Moff Tarkin and the invincible the Death Star. Team Bantha keeps escaping for one reason and one reason only. They are better than the forces we send against them. I will initiate a plan of my own design this time. It will factor in the skills displayed by the rebels and it will not fail. I am going to my ready room, see to it that I am not disturbed.”

    “Aye aye sir!”


 


Chapter Twelve

 

 

 

 

    The Apocalypse was doing what all good strike carriers do, hitting the Imperials hard and then fading away before any reinforcements could arrive. All through the Valorin sector, the fighters of the Apocalypse were making themselves felt, to the chagrin of the sector Moff. The only problem was she was doing too good a job, the sector Moff had dispatched as much of his force as could spare to flood the sector with recon fighters and scouts to hunt the Apocalypse down.

    However the commander of the Apocalypse, Captain Ehrinn Challis was far too smart a raider to be caught by such heavy handed methods, Challis simply moved on to the adjacent Makasia sector. This time Challis decided to tone down the scale and scope of her raids to extend the amount of time the rebels could operate in the sector by setting up in the uninhabited Toridis system's oort cloud.

    The Imperials would be on the look out for a fighter base and would scour the sector's planets, they would not however be looking for a carrier and would never think to search an oort cloud for a fighter base. In order to make this plan happen, Challis needed hard data on the Toridis system's oort cloud. Not wanting any mistakes, she sent her best special operations team in the Spectre, along with four recconnaissance Y-wings under the team's command to find the perfect hiding place.

    "Explain to me again how we chosen to fly though this junk?" Said Leland to his co-pilot Carek Argonaut after avoiding yet another asteroid, which seemed like the thousandth one in the past hour.

    "I don't know Leland, I guess if we failed in more of our missions, Captain Challis wouldn't give us the difficult jobs."

    "Are you telling me that all we have to to is screw up more and we get the cushy runs?"

    "What ever you're thinking of, it would be a good idea to forget about it and concentrate on avoiding that rock at 236 mark 14."

    "It was worth a thought."

    "Gold one to Gold leader. Gold one to Gold leader." The comm unit crackled with static and distortion caused by the ever present debris.

    "This is Gold leader, go ahead Gold one." Said Carek pulling double duty as communications officer.

    "I've lost contact with Gold four."

    "What are the coordinates of his last known position?"

    "435 by 177 by 34."

    "Okay, you continue your sweep and we'll go see what's going on."

    "Wilco Gold leader. Gold one out."

    "Trouble?" Asked Leland as the Spectre turned towards where the lost fighter was last seen.

    "Possible, I'm going to wake up everybody, just in case."

    "Good idea."

 

    The Spectre's passive sensors beeped softly, bringing Leland and Halasa, who was co-piloting now that Carek had joined Ardent and Kyle in manning the turrets of the Spectre, around to face the sensor read out.

    "Low level power source, too weak to be a ship." Said Leland.

    "Grarowa?" Whuffed Halasa.

    "Sure, there's enough distortion in the oort cloud to risk an active search."

 

    The powerful sensors of the Spectre quickly isolated the power source, and a large mass of refined metal as well. Leland sorted through the debris and identified just what was hiding in the oort cloud.

    "I don't believe it, it is a ship. It's in real bad shape."

    "Waoorugha?"

    "I'm not sure what type yet, the power curve is very low for the amount of mass I'm reading."

    Leland initiated a focused scan on the derelict hidden amoung a concentration of large asteroids.

    "Okay, getting solid telemetry now, I'm picking up a transponder code. The Pan Galactic Frigate..." Leland adjusted the main sensor array for more gain. "Mystic. Pan Galactic? Who are they?"

    Halasa's non-commital grunt meant he didn't know either.

    Lazarus who had been monitoring the conversation from engineering spoke up. "I think I vaguely remember that twenty some years ago, this sector tried to go independent during the height of the Clone wars and formed an experimental coalition of planets, called the Pan Galactic Federation."

    "Are you trying to tell me that hulk has been here for...HOLY HOPPING HORNDOGS!"

    Leland broke off in mid-sentence to dodge fire from the Mystic. The Spectre rolled out of the turbolaser's field of fire and pulled into a blind spot caused the same asteroid the Mystic was using for cover.

    "Okay, okay that hulk's not only a relic from during the Clone Wars, it's a relic with some teeth. What's the plan Carek?"

    "Only one gun fired and I only see three undamaged turrets, I guess their power reserve is too low for more than one shot at a time. If we target the turrets, we can knock out those teeth and then we can board to find out just what exactly is going on."

    "Okay, let's hope he isn't playing lame just to lure us into a trap. On my mark." Leland rolled out from behind the asteroid and broke from cover directly above the Mystic.

    "MARK!"

    Kyle and Ardent fired as soon as they heard Leland's mark and both blasted turrets apart. Carek held fire as he reached out through the Force to the other ship to try and get a read on the hostile derelict.

    The remaining turbolaser unaturally tracked the Spectre all the way through its evasive roll and fired before Leland could react. However instead of a cohesive beam of light, the Mystic heeled sharply as the turbolaser's capacitor bank burst, leaving the Mystic unable to continue the fight.

    "Graragha rhuffga trah."

    "Yeah, I know Halasa. If that old cap bank hadn't failed they would have had us. It's hard to believe that old wreck could stay with me."

    Halasa added a low growl as the Spectre prepared to dock with the Mystic.

    "What do you mean, maybe I'm not as good as I think I am? I can fly rings around you any day of the week. You overstuffed escapee from a carpet factory."

    Halasa was still laughing when Carek and Ardent reached the bridge.

    "What's he laughing at?" Said Ardent.

    "He's suffering from delusions." Leland shot back over his shoulder as he examined the docking ring of the Mystic through the cockpit viewports.

    "We got trouble."

    "What's wrong?" Asked Carek as he crowded in for a look. "They couldn't have gotten one of those turrets back on line. Could they?"

    "No it's not that bad, their docking ring looks damaged. Unless it's repaired we can't dock."

    "I knew we shouldn't have left Rathbone on the Apocalypse." Said Ardent.

    "He still was low on total blood volume from that spiked gate on Ma'olrin four. He just wasn't ready to go out so soon. We'll have to just make do for ourselves."

    "I know Carek, it's just that...Hey, where's Three-Emm? He should be able to repair that ring easily."

    Halasa had finally stopped laughing enough to half growl, half chuckle a question.

    "Laughing boy here, wants to know how we're going to get Three-Emm across to the Mystic?"

    "I'll suit up and float him over."

    "I guess when you don't have an engineer," Said Leland. "you've got to make do with a Jedi and a R2."

 

    "Okay Three-Emm that's got it. Leland, you can dock whenever you’re ready."

    Carek waited until the Spectre was about to dock then jumped across the remaining distance and gently pulled Three-Emm after him. The repaired docking clamps mated and sealed with a heavy thump, then the airlock cycled. When the airlock finished, Carek and the rest of team Bantha were ready to board the long lost ship.

    "I'm reading an atmosphere," Said Leland. "that always makes things easier. I hate wearing a vacc suit when there's the possibility of combat."

    Halasa scanned the Mystic and gruffed.

    "No power." Leland translated.

    As Halasa went to manually open the hatch, Kyle noticed a blinking light on the inside of the hatch portal.

    "Wait Halasa, I thought you said there was no power? If that's true then what's that light?"

    Halasa focused a scan around the entire hatch, then growled deep in his throat and pushed the team back into the airlock of the Spectre.

    "I have got to learn more Wookiee, Leland what did he say?" Asked Lazarus as Halasa cautiously approached the hatch.

    "He said the blinking light was a bomb. It looks like Kyle just saved our hides from an unpleasant surprise."

    The booby trap was a crude one relying on surprise and not on sophistication, and Halasa was able to quickly disarm the trap. He then applied his massive frame to the manual release and carefully opened the hatch, which led to an empty cargo bay.

    The Mystic's artificial gravity was offline forcing the rebels to move slowly in freefall. The team moved past empty crew quarters and signs of severe deck-by-deck fighting as they headed for the bridge.

    "Stay on your toes and spread out. Something just doesn't feel right. Kyle, Lazarus, you better stay with the Spectre."

 

    "A 'Disturbance in the Force' Carek?"

    "I know you don't understand the Force Leland, but I would think you've seen enough of the Force in action not to dismiss it so lightly."

    "You're right about not understanding the Force, but I guess you've been right enough not to ignore it completely. You heard him, look alive, somebody was manning that turbolaser and I don't want to have to explain how you got killed by some ghost."

    As Leland was speaking, Carek was reaching out with the Force to try and better understand what was troubling him. It was then that he heard the sound of heavy blaster fire. Carek wheeled about with his lightsaber drawn looking for a target.

    "What's wrong with you?" Said Leland. "Have you gone space happy or something?"

    "Don't you hear those blasters?"

    Ardent looked around with his head tilted to one side as he listened intently. "I can almost hear something, but it's too insubstantial to be sure what it is."

    Halasa growled that he too could hear the sounds of battle and he tightened his grip on his bowcaster as he too scanned for enemies in the old ghost ship.

    "I still don't hear anything and I think you're all going space happy and I don't see why I have..."

    "I think emotions of the crew have left a psychic residue on the Force from when the ship fought its last battle." Interrupted Carek. "I think those sounds are twenty years old. We should be safe, but let's keep a sharp eye out. Something is still not right."

    "And I know what it is, you have all lost your minds."

    "Leland that's enough," Said Ardent. "Carek feels there's something to be concerned about and his feelings have saved our collective hides before, so let's get this done."

    "Right. Let's."

    The team moved out and Halasa took point. The team was in the main corridor that led to the bridge, when there was the blinding flash of a magnesium flare. As the team struggled to react, they came under fire from someone on the bridge.

    "All squads advance on my signal!" A voice called from the source of the firing. "Watch the cross connect Hardlin! They've set up an ambush."

    Disoriented by the searing brightness of the flare, Carek, Ardent and Leland stumbled into cover, but Halasa, on point, was the closest to the flare and farthest from cover.

    "HALASA, GET DOWN!" Screamed Leland as he drew his blaster and fired at the blur that was firing at the helpless wookiee.

    "Waraaghra!" Howled Halasa as he was hit.

    "That flare is going to get us a killed, unless..." Thought Carek as a blaster bolt spattered against the bulkhead he had taken cover behind, as he tried to calm his mind to open it to the Force. "Unless, I can find a way to take it out of the equation."

    The flare quivered for a second, then spun back toward their half seen attacker. The ambusher, now visible as a single bedraggled human, broke cover and fled.

    As soon as the corridor was visible, Halasa in a pain-induced Wookiee rage, charged after the humanoid form.

    "Fall back! Fall back! We're being outflanked. No hope, make for the bridge! We'll make our last stand there!"

    "Oh no you don't!" Said Carek as he switched targets and the escaping man found himself hanging in mid-air, despite all his flailing. "Ardent, I don't think this guy is lifting with all repulsors. See if you can stun him."

    "Good plan. Leland see if you can calm Halasa down, he's in the way."

    "I'll try, but he's...HALASA!"

    Halasa, who had been charging down the corridor, bounced against something and crumpled, floating limply in the lack of gravity. The reason for Halasa's fall became obvious as he fell, a monofiliment net had been strung across the corridor, leaving it impassible.

    The attacker took advantage of the confusion to reach into his ragged tunic and throw something at the rebels.

    "THERMAL DETONATOR!" Yelled Leland as he dove for cover.

    Carek maintained his hold on the mad crewman and focused on the spinning orb. The deadly package stopped and began to reverse course, then Carek felt the detonator ripped free of his control and it once again headed for the rebels.

    "Ardent!" Cried Carek. "Quick, take my lightsaber and cut that net! I'll try and hold him off. Hurry, this guy is strong!"

    Ardent caught the lightsaber, ignited it, and sliced through the net. Now that he was free to move, Ardent drew his vibroblade and lunged at the insane crewer, who was struggling with Carek to maintain control of the detonator and failed to see Ardent approach.

    "YAH BRIN DAGA!"

    The war cry of clan Mo'duaglozen burst from Ardent's lips as he struck with a vengence, slashing the man from just above his left hip and ripping upward until the vibroblade hung up on his rib cage. The mad crewman dropped limp, allowing Carek to throw the thermal detonator down a side corridor just before it exploded violently.

    Ardent sheathed his vibroblade and bent down to examine the fallen Halasa.

    "He's still alive! Leland, bring a medpac!"

    Leland rolled out from his hiding place and swam for his comrades, while Carek turned to retrieve his lightsaber still floating where Ardent had left it. Behind Ardent, the mad Jedi's eyes flickered open. He turned his head slightly and found the man that had killed him, he spun around and lashed out with the Force.

    Carek felt the Jedi's rage through the Force, but not in time to voice a warning. Ardent twisted backward from the mad Jedi's attack until he too dropped limp. Carek grabbed for his two friends and pulled them back toward Leland, who was waiting to assist with medpacs.

    "ABANDON SHIP! ABANDON SHIP!" The mad Jedi screamed as he somehow managed to pull his savaged body toward the bridge and seal the blastdoor.

    "All hands this is the captain, boarders have taken over! Self destruct sequence activated. ABANDON SHIP! ABANDON SHIP!"

    An alarm klaxon began to sound and a computer generated voice began to the count down. Leland worked feverishly on Halasa, as Carek did the same with Ardent.

    "We've got to get out of here!" Said Leland as he slapped the stimpac on Halasa, who began to moan and slowly regain consciousness. "That maniac is serious about blowing this wreck-and us-to bits."

    "Tell me something I don't know. Come on Ardent wake up."

    Carek placed his hands on Ardent's forehead, used the Force to bring Ardent around. He put his arm around Ardent and began swimming for the Spectre. Leland did the same with Halasa, but couldn't move nearly as fast with the much heavier load.

    "Ship will self destruct in thirty seconds. All hands to the escape pods." The computer continued to intone.

    "We'll have to free the docking clamps while we're in the airlock, if we're going to have any chance of getting clear." Said Leland as the team struggled to the blast door that lead to the Spectre.

    "Ship will self destruct in Twenty seconds." The ship replied.

    "Oh shut up already! Clamps free! Carek can you get them strapped in by yourself?"

    "Go! I've got them. Lazarus full power to aft shields. Kyle start moving us away now! Leland's on his way!"

    Leland now under the Spectre's artificial gravity, took off for the bridge at a dead run. Carek in the meantime struggled to move the wounded rebels out of the airlock.

    The Spectre was pulling slowly away, when Leland dived into the pilot's seat. He slammed full power to the sublight drive, just as soon as his hand could reach the throttle.

    On the Mystic, the once proud flag ship of Pan Galactic Federation Patrol Division Six, the dying man who sat in the captain's chair and who had at one time had been the ship's executive officer, watched the self destruct timer and his own lifeblood run out.

    In engineering, main power relays closed and all core safeties opened. However the flood of raw power that would create the hellstorm of energy that in turn incinerate the Mystic and anything within a thousand meters, which at that second still included the rapidly accelerating Spectre, failed to ignite.

    The madness that allowed her commander to see and speak to a crew long dead, also blinded him to the damage that had wrecked the Mystic so many years ago. Instead of sublight engines bristling with power, the Mystic was running off of solar powered batteries. The self destruct protocol tapped into the only active power source available  to meet the imperative from the bridge. The solar batteries fed all their power into the central power core and from the viewport of the Spectre Leland saw a feeble electrical discharge run the length of the Mystic, and then the crippled ship began to drift.

    On the bridge of the Mystic, her captain saw the feeble lightning and gave in to the darkness that had been waiting twenty-three years to consume the last survivor of the Pan Galactic Federation.

 

    "After the self destruct failed, we then linked up with the Y-wings and returned to rendezvous with the Apocalypse." Carek spoke softly to the officer debriefing him, his mind far from the task at hand. "The oort cloud hid the Mystic for more than twenty years, it should make an excellent hiding place the Apocalypse. I guess that just about covers everything. Am I free to go?"

    "Captain Argonaut, I feel that you're not telling me everything, what is bothering you?"

    "It's just sad to think that another Jedi has gone. I know he was insane from being alone for all those years, but each Jedi lost is a victory for the Dark Side."

    "At least in his warped mind, he died defending his ship. That is the best that he could have hoped for. You may go it's almost 1500."

    "Thanks, that will leave me just enough time to change into my dress uniform."

    "Dress uniform?"

    Carek paused at the doorway.

    "Yes, the Captain agrees with you and has decided to bury him with full military honors. And that, is the least we could do for him.


 

Chapter Thirteen

 

 

 

    "Team Bantha to the briefing room." The intercom intoned. "Team Bantha to the briefing room."

    "That won't be good news." Said Lazarus rising from his seat in the rec room where he had been watching Carek practicing with his lightsaber.

    "We'll find out soon enough," The would-be Jedi answered as he shut down his lightsaber. "but you're probably right, there is nothing scheduled for the next two weeks."

    The two marines continued their conversation as they headed for the briefing room.

    "So, that means it's 'Team Bantha to the rescue again.' Sometimes I wish that there was an easier way." Said Lazarus.

    "It's been my experience that there's never an easier way."

    "More Jedi wisdom?"

    "No, just the result of having been beat up everytime I tried to find the easier way."

    "Yeah, that's the truth. So, tell me Carek, since you're learning to be a Jedi Knight on your own, how will you know when you've completed your training?"

    "That my friend, is a good question, but I have so far to go, that it will be a while before I have to worry about it."

    They reached the briefing room and found that they were the last to arrive. Leland, Halasa, and Rathbone; who served as pilot, co-pilot, and engineer respectively were waiting along with Ardent and Kyle, who filled out the team's marine contingent. Captain Ehrinn Challis, commander of the Apocalypse was waiting as well.

    "Good work out?" She asked.

    "Excellent, we got here as fast as we could." Carek responded.

    "I know, it's just that time is short. Now to the business at hand." Challis activated the room's holoprojector, which displayed seven one-foot tall images.

    "These people, are for one reason or another, all political refugees. The Alliance is moving them to a safe haven on the planet Fnalla in the Druaazi sector and you are to be their escort."

    "Your pulling us out of deep penetration raids and sending us on an escort mission?" This from Leland. "Have we become baby sitters?"

    Challis fixed Leland with a piercing gaze and Leland subsided.

    "Each one of these 'babies,' has important information about the Empire. Each alone does not have enough information to be significant, however, properly debriefed, they can give us a very in depth picture of Imperial movements in this entire sector, they have agreed to talk in exchange for our protection. And that is all you need to know Lieutenant Archimedes."

    "If there are no further questions about the need for the mission, I'll move on to a discription of your passengers."

    "The first, is Nia Glasion," Challis indicated a fortyish human female. "She is a noted historian, who worked for the Imperial Archives at the University of Coruscant." Challis then highlighted a group of three hard cases, a human couple in their mid-twenties and a short, furred, monkey-like alien male. "The man is Revv, the woman is Tara and the Yazirian is K'rigg. They are the only survivors of a pirate crew that had been ranging, rather boldly I might add, through the core systems, until cornered and destroyed by an Imperial anti-piracy patrol.

    Challis shifted the highlight to a bedraggled Wookiee. "This is Merrg, he was the personal slave of the sector Moff, Merrg has seen much and has been ill used for it." She then focused on a very high brow human that Challis, based on her expression, had nothing but contempt for. "This individual is Philst Anond, he was a sycophant now out of favor with the Emperor, you would do well to keep your eye on him at all times, I for one do not trust him or his motives.

    "The last of your passengers is a Humma," The holoprojector showed a bi-pedal marsupial. "Tem here, was an ambassador until the Empire decided they needed his home world more than he did. That's the lot of them, they are each very important and while I don't expect you to be a 'baby sitter', I do expect you to take every precaution to get them to their destination safely. Are there any questions?"

    "Sir," Rathbone spoke of the first time. "there is no way we can fit fourteen people in the Spectre.

    "Very observant, Ensign Loegin, you will not be using the Spectre, you will be using a modified personal yacht that does not have any known connection with the Alliance. You will leave here on the Spectre and rendezvous on Bespin with an Ensign Trilsk, who will fly the Spectre to your pick up rendezvous. Once you've dropped the refugees at the haven, you will link up with Trilsk, exchange ships again and return here."

    "How well is this ship armed?" Asked Kyle.

    "I know you have amassed quite an impressive combat record, Lieutenant Kyle, but your mission is one of stealth, not combat. The Long Wind Sally has only token weaponry. If there are no further questions,

you leave in one hour. Dismissed."

 

    "What in the south side of Nar Hutta was that?" Rathbone exclaimed as he picked himself off the floor of his cabin and ran for engineering. "Bridge, this is Loegin what's going on?"

    "Roaawara!" Halasa bellowed back.

    "Whoa, I didn't do anything, all I know is we're showing heavy damage to the sublight and repulsor grids. The hyperdrive's offline and going by the smell of charred circuitry, it's in bad shape."

    "This is not the most pleasant way to wake up. What have you got for me." Said Leland who had just reached the bridge.

    The Long Wind Sally bucked and rolled as Halasa fought with the controls, he growled back at Rathbone and again in relief as Leland staggered into the pilot's seat.

    "You weren't at Tosca it's not like that at all, we've still got some control and we're not in the atmosphere yet."

    "What did he say Leland? I still can't follow him when he gets excited." Said Rathbone.

    "Oh, to you he said, 'Full power to repulsors we're going to crash.' and to me he said, 'It's about time you got here.'"

    "Full power to repulsors, you got it, I'll also channel as much excess power from sublight and hyperdrive as the grid will hold."

    "Thanks Rath, I'll get back to you when I know more."

    "Tell me what you know now." Said Carek, who, along with Lazarus, had taken their places in the astrogator's and communication's seats.

    "Hyperdrive cut out. I know it's not my fault, I had that plot perfect." Said Leland.

    "I know you did, I always practice an instinctive plot whenever we go anywhere, just to stay sharp and your plot was right on target."

    "Fault is academic at this point," Said Lazarus after a quick scan with the sensors. "We're already entering the stratosphere. We're just going to have put reasons on hold and make the best of what we've got. I suggest we get the passengers strapped in, cause this is going to be a rough one."

    "Good idea Laz." Said Carek as he activated the intercom. "Ardent. Kyle. Get everyone strapped in and brace for impact."

    "We're already working on it." Kyle responded tersely.

    Leland, Halasa, and Rathbone each pulled the maximum from the stricken ship, as it shuddered though the lower atmosphere and into a blanket of thick fog.

    "Altitude one hundred meters. Speed two fifty KPH." Said Lazarus.

    "Still can't see a thing." Leland responded. "Can you see any sort of clearing through that mush?"

    "I'm reading heavy vegetation all around. Altitude fifty meters. Speed two hundred."

    "Carek, can you do that 'Force thing' and find us a safe spot? I'm about out of altitude, airspeed and ideas."

    Before Carek could answer, the Long Wind Sally emitted a gut wrenching shriek as they smashed through the first of many trees that lay in the ship's path.

    "Halasa, shunt all power to repulsors, I..."

    Leland never finished what he was going to say, as the yacht plowed into the tallest of the low mossy trees that they had been just barely skimming since they dropped into the fog. The ship tried to dig in nose first, but Leland, augmented by twice normal repulsor power, curtesy of a total safety limit over ride by Rathbone, kept the nose out of the ground.

    The Long Wind Sally ground to a bone crushing halt. Lazarus' safety harness failed throwing him forward into the back of Halasa's seat violently. Carek leapt out of his seat to go to his aid.

    In engineering, the fire suppression system activated and snuffed out blaze caused by a massive short circuit in the hyperdrive. Rathbone crawled out of the fire with second degree burns on thirty percent of his body.

    "Are you guys okay?" Choked Ardent to the refugees, while Kyle tended to Rathbone.

    "I was supposed to be receiving sanctuary," Thundered Philst as he staggered to his feet in the main cabin. "not made to travel with third class humans and aliens and suffer the ignominity of being killed by a group of half trained savages, unfit to fly a landspeeder let alone a starship!"

    "We love you too," Ardent responded, his fists clenching and unclenching. "but the question before you is, ARE YOU OKAY?"

    Philst taken aback by the tattooed merc's obvious implied threat, stepped back unable to respond.

    "We seem to be none the worst for the experience." Said Nia Glasion to break the tension. "However, I would not like to try that again, I find that studying about great deeds is much easier than surviving great deeds."

 

    "I'm sorry about the landing ma'am," Said Ardent. "I don't know what happened, but if you're all alright, I intend to find out."

    Ardent moved slowly across the tilted deck to the cockpit. When he arrived he found Carek cradling Lazarus' head, while Leland applied a medpac to his severely injured comrade. Halasa was running a ship wide diagnostic and obviously didn't like what he was seeing.

    "Leland," Ardent sighed. "that was not one of your better landings, still it was better than Tosca, at least we didn't have to use the escape pod."

    "Ardent shut up, and if no one needs help, go away." Said Leland never looking up from Lazarus.

    "Is everyone okay?" Asked Carek.

    "Rathbone got a little toasted, Kyle is patching him up. The children are okay, but that Philst won't be if he doesn't drop that high and mighty attitude of his. Does anyone know what happened?"

    "R-R-Rogue com-comet." Groaned Lazarus, just coming around from Carek's assistance. "I got a sensor sca-scan just before we entered the atmosphere of where ever here is."

    "Halasa what shape are we in?" Leland asked as he moved back to the pilot's seat.

    Halasa's forlorn howl said all they needed to hear and a lot more that they didn't want to hear.

    "He's right," Said Leland shaking his head from his look at the read outs. "The hyperdrive is totally slagged. The main cooling coils cracked when we crossed the comet's tail, they failed completely when we hit, causing the fire in engineering, the extinguishers kept it from spreading, but not before both motivators melted. The upshot is, we've got forty percent of sublight and sixty five percent repulsors, but no hyperdrive, period."

    "Do you know where we are?" This from Rathbone who had limped in with Kyle to hear the news. "I mean being wrecked is bad, but being wrecked and lost is just too much."

    "Laz only got a partial scan, it will take me awhile to reconstruct exactly where we are, but as a guess, I would say we are somewhere in the Delfarra system, less than halfway to Fnalla."

    The silence hung for a few seconds as they contemplated the repercussions of being stranded on an unknown planet that was, at sublight speeds, centuries away from help.

    "You said we still had sixty five percent repulsors," Said Kyle. "can we use the ship to scout the planet? There might be somebody living here and we might be able to get repairs, or book passage, or anything other than being stranded."

    "I'll have to reroute main power to compensate for that 'full power to repulsors' trick I pulled to get us down." Said Rathbone. "It will take at least two hours to put that mess back there into something that resembles an engine room again."

    "That will give us time to verify the atmosphere and to take stock on the rest of the ship." Said Carek. "Until we can prove there's no one else here, we're not stranded."

 

    "Okay Leland, give it a try." Said an obviously tired Rathbone. "We've done about as much as we can without seeing the drive under load. The starboard grid is beyond help, but with the patchwork we've run with the remaining grids, you should be able to compensate."

    "Okay, everybody brace yourselves. Carek one quarter power."

    "Outstanding!" Leland whooped, as the Long Wind Sally shuddered and groaned, but held steady. "It's about time we got some good news."

    The team had had their hands full. Rathbone and Halasa had been very busy repairing the heavily damaged repulsors and sensor array. Ardent and Kyle had been even busier inventorying the ships stores, keeping an eye on the still incapacitated Lazarus, and keeping the refugees in line. Carek, due to the main sensor array being offline, could only use the external hull sensors to conduct an examination on the mystery planet, finding it to be a dense jungle with almost perpetual fog and an atmosphere tainted by metallic compounds unbreathable without breathmasks. Leland through the laborious task of manually calculating their location from the partial sensor scan and from plotting the few stars visible through the fog, confirmed his hypothesis that they were in the Imperial held Delfarra system. On an uninhabited planet that hadn't even rated a name, just the numeric designation L7-438-H4, given by the scout that discovered and then promptly forgot the nearly useless planet.

    "Rathbone, did you get the sensors online?" Asked Carek moving to the communications/sensors station as Halasa took cover as co-pilot.

    "Yessss, in a manner of speaking."

    "And what manner of speaking is that?"

    "Look, when the hyperdrive blew, it took most of the circuitry back here with it. I had to pirate parts from the few remaining systems to get the repulsors online. The sensors do work, but only at ten percent of normal."

    "Ten percent! That's only slightly better than macrobinoculars."

    "If you think you could do better Jedi boy, you're welcome to come back here and take over at anytime."

    "No Rath, I know you did the best that you could."

    "And my best, is as good as it gets."

    "Now don't go getting a big head, we've got enough problems already."

    "Are you two through with your love fest?" Leland interrupted. "As you said we have enough problems, let's start solving them."

    "True enough Leland. Said Carek sheepishly. "Good work Rath. Initiating scan."

    The nearly blind sensors reached out to scan the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum they could still detect.

    "Leland, try a slow three sixty to port."

    Carek coaxed the sensors for as much of the spectrum he could get. Leland had just completed two full circles and was about to give up.

    "I'm not reading anything. I think we...wait! Go back to heading 147 mark 6. There it is! Range four hundred eighty klicks."

    "THERE WHAT IS?" Yelled Leland, who up until that point had been unaware that he had been holding his breath.

    "Active neutrino emissions! We've got a power source out there. It looks like the Empire has set up some form of outpost."

    "And an outpost has to be resupplied. We got a way out of here."

    "It's a good thing this fog is here, we should be able to get in close without being seen."

    "There's that Jedi optimism again."

    "Just drive Archimedes, just drive."

 

    The Long Wind Sally settled down within a kilometer of the unknown power source. During the slow lumbering flight the team held a war council to decide the best course of action.

    "I am not staying cooped up in this hulk anymore! K'rigg shrieked in his unfortunately shrill voice. "I have gone along with this 'asylum' thing long enough. I've been fighting Imperials since I was a cub and I will not cower like a frightened Tauntaun, when there is fighting to do."

    "K'rigg." Carek tried again to calm the agitated Yazirian. "We have been given the job to get you to Fnalla..."

    "HANG YOUR JOB!"

    "Carek, if he wants to go with us why stop him." Said Kyle, who was about at wits end with the Yazirian's voice which was so shrill now that it actually rattled teeth. "It's his life to do as he chooses, who are we to stop him?"

    "I guess you're right. I yield. Does anyone else wish to go with us?"

    "Tara and I will stand by our mate." Said Revv to no one's surprise.

"We've hung together this long, if this is our last run then we'll not let him go down alone."

    "I want to go too." This from Tem and this did surprise everyone.

    "Are you sure ambassador?" Said Rathbone. "This is no cake run, it could get nasty."

    "I have been on the run since the Empire seized Hummas Prime. I want to start making the Empire pay for what they did to my homeworld."

    "I can respect that, the Empire cost me my entire family." Said Revv. "If you think you're up to it I say let him go."

    "The Empire only uses force when it is merited." Said Philst.

    "You would do well to keep your mouth shut," Said Revv rising to his feet. "unless you would prefer to swallow those ceramically bonded teeth of yours. You arrogant blowhard."

    "People, we will have no fighting amoung us." Rathbone said as he stepped between the two men. "We put our energy into defeating the Empire, not each other."

    "Well said Rath," Carek added. "I can see what your preference is Philst, How say you Merrg?"

    Merrg only shook his head. Nia looked decidedly uncomfortable.

    "I...I wish I could go with you, but I'm no combatant, I would only get in the way."

    "Ma'am, sometimes the wisest course of action is knowing when you should not take any action." Said Kyle.

    "Merrg?" Said Carek, trying to break the thousand meter stare that the battered Wookiee adopted when no one was talking directly to him.

    Merrg turned his sad brown eyes to meet Carek's and waited for him to continue. The Moff that had owned Merrg had spent years breaking his will and despite the fact that Merrg knew the Moff was dead, Merrg would still not speak without being commanded to do so.

    "We need someone to stand guard here on the ship while we're out scouting, will you do it?"

    The play of emotions on Merrg's face was plain to see. He was still very much the broken slave, but Carek's kind words allowing him to decide for himself, had reached where there was still a spark of hope and that spark won out over the fear, he first simply nodded, then he surprised everyone by uttering a long rumbling roar that came from somewhere deep inside him. Merrg then smiled for the first time, he had taken that first step toward recovery.

 

    They had reached the last of the cover overlooking the site of the unknown power source. The heavy jungle gave way to a clearing fifty meters wide that lead to a series of boulders. The clearing either had a drainage problem or the entire open area had been deliberately allowed to flood, leaving a fifty meter wide band of half meter deep sludge.

    "Whoever these people are, they aren't too smart." Said Ardent as they moved slowly through the mud.

    "Well there's a brilliant observation." Leland answered, none to happy at having to ruin his boots in the gooey mud.

    "Will you two be quiet." Kyle hissed. "We'll be sitting gundarks if you draw any attention."

    "Right. Sorry." Said Leland.

    The clearing sloped gently upwards and they were able to reach the high ground at the edge of the boulders without incident. Here they could see that the boulders had been identically cut and that the boulders surrounded twenty-odd stone buildings, which in turn were built around a metal building in the center of the compound. Inside the ring of boulders the rebels found that the planet's .98G gravity had been artificially increased to 1.3G.

    "Yah brin daga." Ardent whispered his clan battle cry in awe when he recognized the lizard like aliens that were tending crops inside the compound. "Those are the..."

    "Lizards with the corrosive blood." Finished Carek who was equally stunned to see the deadly unnamed aliens.

    "How did they get here?" Asked Rathbone. "I mean, we ran into these guys more than a thousand parsecs from here."

    "The Force only knows how, all that's really important is that, if this is our power source, we're still stuck." Said Carek.

    "They don't look so tough to me." Said Leland clearly unimpressed by the stories he had heard from his comrades. "Yeah, they look pretty strong, but they just don't look that tough."

    Kyle spoke up for the first time since seeing the aliens. "You weren't there. These guys are bad news. Hey Carek, these guys are wearing grey. The other one's were wearing blue."

    "And don't forget that Force using gold guy." Added Rathbone.

    "I would like to try to contact these guys peacefully." Said Carek.

    "Peacefully?" Asked an incredulous Ardent. "Just how are you going to do that?"

    "We have to try and talk to them. We're in too bad shape to try and force the issue." Insisted Carek.

    "These guys aren't the 'let's sit down and have a talk' type." Ardent was also insistent.

    "I'll go." Said Leland. "They never met me, and thus, just in case word got to these guys somehow, they won't be as inclined to fight someone they don't know."

    "They didn't know us last time and that didn't stop them from almost killing half of us." Said Ardent.

    "I still say it's worth a try. If they attack then we'll have to take what we need." Said Carek.

    "Then it would be a good idea for you to go." Ardent still insisted.

    "It's your idea and you're supposed to be our team leader. you should be the one to make contact.

    "Ardent quit being so difficult." Said Kyle. "I think Carek's point about not provoking them while our ship is so beat up is valid."

    "I'll go with Leland." Said Rathbone. "Carek should be here to lead the reinforcements if it comes to that. I think I can handle an initial contact."

    In order to stifle any further debate, Rathbone started walking toward the two aliens in the field, forcing Leland to run to catch up. They cleared the boulders and walked toward the aliens with their hands in plain sight.

    "Hello! Hello! We mean you no harm." Said Rathbone in the most calming voice he could use and still be heard thirty meters away.

    The aliens jerked around at the sound, gestured wildly, then screamed and ran. Leland and Rathbone ran after them with Rathbone still trying to talk to the frightened aliens.

    "Hey slow down we just want to talk for Diety's sake will you stop." Rathbone yelled after the rapidly retreating lizards.

    The aliens ran into the nearest building. Rathbone and Leland were halfway across the field, when Rathbone grabbed Leland's arm and pointed off to his left. Two blue robed aliens had appeared and were leveling blaster rifles on them.

    "I knew this wouldn't work!" Snarled Ardent as he opened fire with his pistol, putting three shots into one of the aliens. Kyle blasted the second alien before it could even draw a bead on the two would be emmissaries.

    Rathbone had advanced to where the aliens had fallen with Leland providing cover as the rest of the rebels broke cover to join their comrades.

    "Carek. Kyle. Ardent. Look at this!" Called Rathbone, who was very upset about something.

    "What have you got, Rath?" Gasped Kyle winded from his dead run.

    "Look at these blasters!" Said Rathbone.

    "So what. They're standard Imperial rifles," Said Ardent. "Big Deal."

    "IMPERIAL!" Carek cried. "Ardent think this through, either these guys took these weapons from some Imperials who didn't need them anymore, or..."

    "The Imperials gave them the rifles! YAH BRIN DAGA!" Exclaimed Ardent using his clan battle cry as an oath, when he realized that the one thing that had scared the late Captain Arkin-an alliance between these aliens and the Empire-had very likely come to be. "We got to report back to the Alliance, this is too hot to wait."

    "That may be very true," Said Rathbone. "but that doesn't change the fact that our hyperdrive is still wrecked and we still haven't found a replacement."

    "Right, first things first." Said Carek. "Everyone fan out. Stay alert and if you see any aliens in blue or gold, shoot first. The further away the better, these aliens are deadly with their claws and they bleed a corrosive inchor that's just as deadly. Let's move."

    The team and political refugees moved carefully through the compound. They met no further resistance. The only aliens found wore grey robes and cowered in abject terror whenever anyone came near. The metal building in the center of the compound proved to be a large fusion power generator for the artificial gravity. They did find three hoversleds, each capable of holding six people.

    "Any luck with the locals?" Asked Rathbone who was running a systems check on the hoversleds.

    "None at all." Carek replied. "They're completely unresponsive and I'm not just good enough to contact them with the Force."

    "Hey what's this?"

    "What's what?

    "Look," Rathbone motioned Carek over to look at what he had discovered. "it's a positional tracker and there's a map loaded in memory. There's an Imperial base less than two hundred kicks from here!"

    "Excellent! I'll get everyone rounded up."

    "What about the generator?"

    "What about it?"

    "Well I could rig it to self destruct. Whatever the Empire and these lizard guys are doing can't be good for Alliance."

    "Go ahead. How much time do you need?"

    "Five minutes."

    "You got it."

    Five minutes later, they were moving toward their ship at full speed. One minute after that, the sky was lit by a huge explosion. The next sound was a pair of TIE fighters screaming in on an attack run. Caught by surprise, the sled piloted by Tara was heavily damaged on the first pass.

    "How in blazes are they tracking us?" Kyle screamed to be heard over the din of explosions, TIE engines, and the straining hoversled engine.

    "Tracking?" Carek repeated. "Tracker! They're using the signals from the positional trackers to find us in this fog. Quick turn off the trackers!"

    As the TIEs came about they powered the sleds down completely. The TIEs made three sweeps over head then banked away.

    "027 mark 4. That's the direction of the Imperial base." Said Leland. "Good call Carek, let's get out of here."

    "I guess once we get Laz, Nia, that jerk Philst, Merrg and the droids we'll head for the base?" Asked Leland.

    "That's about a far as I've thought ahead to." Replied Carek, who was very much short on ideas and was about to say so, when he noticed the sled carrying Ardent, Halasa, and Leland vere sharply off to the right. "Kyle, Ardent's seen something!"

    Ardent was standing over the hoversled's windscreen with his blaster rifle lighting up the fog with a long burst of rapid fire. Kyle was just catching up when, the AT-ST that Ardent was firing on, heeled over from a well aimed hit that severed the hydralic lines, causing the walker to fall over and explode.

    "Nice shooting Ardent." Kyle said when he pulled up along side Ardent's hoversled."

    "I can't take credit for that last shot although I wish I could."

    "If you didn't do it, who did?" Asked Carek.

    There was an ear splitting howl, that sent half of the team diving for cover before they realized, it was just Halasa congratulating Merrg for his excellent shooting Wookiee style. Merrg, very much embarassed by the whole thing, simply whuffed a question.

    "Nothing of any use except for these hoversleds was at the power source," Answered Carek. "but we did discover an Imperial base and we're going to steal a shuttle from them to get out of here."

    "What are we going to do with the refugee from a junk heap?" Asked Rathbone as he indicated the battered yacht, displaying an engineer's concern for a ship even if he didn't like the ship. "We aren't going to let the Imperials have it are we?"

    "I think we'll be better off in the hoversleds." Said Leland.

    "I agree with that, but what are we going to do with the ship?" Said Carek. "Rath is right, we can't just leave it here, they'll be able to gather all sorts of intell if it's taken intact."

    "I can rig a self destruct that we can trigger remotely via a pulse code sent from a comlink." Rathbone said.

    "Good plan. Okay everybody you have..." Carek turned to Rathbone with a raised eyebrow.

    "Fifteen minutes."

    "You heard the man. Let's get movin'."

 

    It took nearly seven hours in the slow hoversleds to cover the two hundred kilometers to arrive at the Imperial base. The long trip had an advantage, in that they arrived at dusk and would not have to wait long for nightfall to begin their attack. The Imperial base was the standard pre-fab design and it was very obvious that it was not fully manned or fully operational.

    "This is too easy," Said Kyle. "it looks like a trap. A half manned base with a Lambda class shuttle setting on the landing pad just waiting for us to grab?"

    "Kyle, why don't you lighten up and be greatful that we've got it easy for a change." Leland said as he shifted his macrobinoculars to scan the base once again. "I've gone over every centimeter of that place ten times and I don't see anything other than what it looks like: a unfinished pre-fab Imperial base."

    "I agree that it seems a little easy," Carek added. "but I haven't been able to sense anything out of the ordinary either."

    "Okay then, how are we going to do this?" Asked a still skeptical Kyle.

    "We bum rush them." Said Leland. "Anything fancier than that will just give them time to react. Those heavy turbolasers on the top of the base are operational and if we let them get into play that will be end game."

    "Don't you know any other tactic other than frontal assault?" This from Rathbone who had run out of patience with the conversation.

    "I don't like the frontal assault plan either," Said Carek coming to a decision. "but I think Leland is right for a change, with the hoversleds we'll be able to get inside those turbolaser's firing arc before they can get their servos up to speed. We land right next to shuttle, pop the rear hatch, get our passengers on board, and blast out fast and low before those turbolasers are ready to fire."

    "Your optimism is an inspiration to us all." Rathbone sneered in a voice just dripping with sarcasm. "If you're all committed, and believe me, you all should be committed, let's get this done."

    The rebels returned to the hoversleds. Leland, Ardent, and Halasa, with Nia and Sam were running block for the refugee's sled. Kyle, Carek, and Rathbone, with Merrg and Three-emm were also running block. K'rigg, Tem, Revv, Tara, Philst and the still semi-conscious Lazarus were in the screened sled.

    On Leland's mark the three sleds burst out of cover at maximum speed, rushing headlong for the landing pad and the all important shuttle. The rebels cleared the open area to the base and roared over the perimeter fence with weapons at the ready. The Imperials responded as quickly as their training allowed, it was however virtually unheard of for anyone to stage a frontal attack an Imperial installation, and the few seconds of hesitation were enough to allow the rebels to dodge the two AT-STs on patrol and reach the landing platform unscathed.

    "I knew it would work!" Howled Leland as he slewed the hoversled to a halt two feet from the shuttle's loading ramp. "So much for caution Rathbone, now you do your part and get that hatch open."

    "Shut up Archimedes, even morons are right sometimes." Said Rathbone acidly as Kyle brought his sled in next to Leland's. Rathbone vaulted out and began trying to open the shuttle's rear hatch.

    The rest of the rag tag band began firing on the two scout walkers that were closing in on them. Ardent poured withering fire into the walker trying to flank them, and was rewarded by the walker being completely destroyed. Halasa, Leland and K'rigg combined their fire and took out the second walker. Just as the second walker collapsed, Rathbone found the right combination and the shuttle's hatch swung open.

    Halasa, anxious to reach the flight deck, jumped aboard before the hatch was halfway down. The rebels were stunned by a full fledged Wookiee battle cry as Halasa slashed into the two squads of stormtroopers that he found waiting in ambush. The stormtroopers were frozen by the rampaging wall of fur before them and three of them were down before any of them could respond.

    "I knew this would never work." Rathbone screamed over his furiously barking blaster. The stormtroopers, disorganized by Halasa's brawny assault, were easy targets and two more fell without a fight.

    When the hatch of the shuttle began to open, Carek saw the main entrance of the Imperial base began to rise, without thinking he threw his lightsaber at the control panel on the outside of the massive  blastdoor. Guided by the Force, the coruscating blade struck true and the blastdoor ground to a halt after only opening a meter. "That won't stop them, but it will slow them down." He was in the process of calling his weapon back to his hand, when six of the blue robed lizards began emerging from under the partially obstructed entrance.

    "Now that's the last thing we need." He thought.

    The landing pad was alive with blasterfire as the rebels hammered at their attackers. Leland, always more comfortable behind the wheel then behind a blaster, dove behind the controls of his hoversled. "I've got just the thing for these jokers." He thought as he hopped back into the hoversled and gunned the engine. Kyle guessing Leland's intent jumped aboard as well.

    Ardent let loose a virtual firestorm into the first two lizards out of the base, dropping both of them. Carek used the Force to grab the next two lizards and hold them floating in the air. Two more lizards rolled out and rushed for the shuttle. K'rigg popped out from behind the hoversled where all the refugees had taken cover and put four blaster bolts into one of the lizards dropping it square in it's tracks. The single remaining lizard dodged past him and closed on the shuttle.

    "Get us in close!" Said Kyle as he readied a pair of grenades. "I've got just the thing to even the odds!"

    "You got it!" Leland managed to answer through gritted teeth as the hoversled, banked at forty five degrees and moving fifteen percent above design speed, raced toward the base's entrance. Kyle using the hoversled as cover, threw both grenades perfectly into the partially open blastdoor. He was ducking back, when he saw the two grenades come flying back out, exploding harmlessly in the open.

    "What?" Carek spun around as he sensed the powerful tremor in the Force. "That's the presense I've detected before. He's here. This is a setup."

    On the shuttle, Halasa under fire by the second rank of troopers, avoided their fire by grabbing one of the troopers and swinging him directly into the other troopers return fire, killing the trooper instantly. Rathbone took advantage of their pre-occupation with the enraged Wookiee to cut down five of more of them from behind, however one of his shots went wild, hitting the loading hatch controls causing it to start to slowly close.

    Carek saw the ramp start to close out of the corner of his eye. "Stormtroopers. Acid lizards. A Dark Jedi. And now we're about to get locked out of our escape ship." He thought. "This just can't get any worse. Three-emm! Hang on we're going for a ride." Carek still holding the two lizards, floated them upward eighty meters to the top of the base's parapet and out of the fight, he then grabbed the fiesty little droid and floated him into the shuttle. Carek tried to keep the ramp from closing, but it was just too much of a stretch for his fledgling abilities. "There's only one way to correct this mess." He thought as he lept through the still partially open ramp.

    Rathbone was standing on the shuttle's ramp and when it began to close, he had to stop firing and shift his position. As he moved, he stumbled over one of the dead troopers and found himself in desperate hand to hand combat with a live trooper. When Carek entered the shuttle, he found that, Halasa had felled two more troopers and was holding the last two survivors at bay. Carek grabbed the trooper brawling with Rathbone from behind and Rathbone laid him out. They both turned to help Halasa, and saw the last of the troopers crumple to the deck.

    "Outstanding Halasa!" Carek started, when suddenly, Halasa bellowed out a thunderous roar and pushed past the young Jedi to engage the lizard that had jumped aboard behind him. Halasa evaded the lizards raking claws, grabbed the lizard and in an impressive display of Wookiee strength, threw the lizard out of the shuttle just as the ramp closed.

    "Thank you Halasa," Said Carek. "you just saved our hides. I never would have believed that anyone could wade into that many troopers and live to talk about it."

    "He did have help you know." Said Rathbone.

    "Sorry Rath. Excellent job, even if it was one of your shots that caused the ramp to close. Do you think you could do something about fixing that?"

    "Uh, I'm on it." Rathbone said sheepishly.

    "Halasa tie up these troopers and take their weapons. Three-emm follow me to the bridge."

 

    Outside a half a dozen more lizards had charged out of the base. Leland whipped the hoversled about and plowed right through them killing two outright and leaving a third wounded. Never one to leave a job half finished, Leland cut power to the repulsors and belly flopped the hoversled onto the wounded lizard killing it instantly. However, the downside was the lizard's acid wrecked the hoversled.

    Inspired by K'rigg's success, the rest of the combatant refugees opened fire on the three surviving lizards and although their fire lacked the precision of the team, they made up for in volume and the three lizards were cut down easily.

    "This is getting real old." Muttered Leland, who while climbing out of the wrecked hoversled, had noticed a dozen more blue robed lizards exiting the base. "Don't these guys ever quit?"

    "You weren't there the last time we fought these guys." Responded Kyle. "If you had been, you wouldn't ask that question."

    Back inside the shuttle, Carek cautiously approached the bridge, paused just before the blast door that led to the bridge, took a deep breath to center himself on the Force, then vaulted onto the bridge. Despite having been poised to fire, the Imperial pilots were still caught off guard by the somersaulting Jedi. Three of them never had a chance to recover. The last pilot only got off one shot that Carek easily dodged, before he too was dropped by the flashing lightsaber.

    "Okay Three-emm, the shuttle is secured. You get the ship ready to go. I'll go back and man the aft turret." Three-emm gave a somewhat lukewarm warble. "Now I don't pretend to be able to follow everything you say, but things aren't that bad. Now go on, get started." This time Three-emm's whistle sounded much more upbeat.

    When Carek reached the aft turret, he was stunned to see that things had indeed gotten worse. Checking the turret's readouts, he found that it was completely cold. "Three-emm, I need power to the aft turret immediately, the team's in trouble. A dozen blue lizards and this time they've got one of those Force forsaken gold robed lizards." He noticed a human wearing a black skin tight suit, grey gloves and boots, and with a black helmet that completely concealed his face. "And that will be the Dark Jedi that's been dogging us for so long.

    While Carek waited helplessly for the turret to power up, Kyle took steady aim, then unleashed his heavy blaster. The lizards, known to be able to absorb large amounts of damage, were none-the-less staggered by Kyle's onslaught and four of the lizards fell. The gold lizard lashed out randomly with a bolt of Force lightning that hit Tara directly in the sternum, dropping her like a stone.

    "TARA!!" An anguished Revv cried out scrambling for a medpac from one of the stormtroopers thrown from the shuttle by Halasa.

    "Not like that! You'll kill her!" Leland yelled to Revv who obviously had no medical training what so ever. Leland holstered his blaster and crawled over to find Tara in full arrest. Neither of the two men noticed the lizard that had flanked them, until Kyle snapped off a quick shot that killed the horrid alien before it could strike.

 

    On board the shuttle Rathbone and Halasa struggled with the badly damaged ramp. "Try cross phasing the environmental decontamination coupling to the ramp's hydralic motivator Halasa, we're running out of time." There were a few snarls from the access panel as Halasa finished the repair, then a single bark. Rathbone punched the open ramp switch and finally, the ramp started to open.

    "All aboard that's going aboard." Rathbone yelled as soon as the ramp was open wide enough to get his head through. "'Got it easy for a change.' my foot. I don't want to see what he calls difficult."

 

    "We've got to get her to Rathbone, it's her only chance." Said Leland after a quick look at Tara."

    "You can't let her die!"

    "I don't intend to, quick help me carry her."

    Revv and Leland carrying the dying Tara, with Merrg providing cover fire, were the first ones aboard. "Rath, I've got to get to the bridge." Said Leland as he turned Tara over to the engineer.

    "Go. She's my problem now."

    Outside, three lizards made a break to rush the shuttle. Kyle, his blaster close to thermal shut down, only managed to stop two of them. Halasa roared to Merrg to cover him, then launched himself at the lizard in a perfect flying tackle.

    The lizards had gotten into contact with the refugees and despite a flurry of last second blaster fire, the blues cut down Tem and K'rigg. Ardent using a stormtrooper's blaster rifle, managed to break the charge of the blues closing in on him and the non-combatant refugees, killing two and wounding another.

    Halasa rolled free of the lizard he had been brawling with, after managing to break it's neck. He saw the two unconscious refugees and scooped them up with the intent to carry them to the relative safety of the shuttle. The gold lizard lashed Halasa with Force lighting and if it had been anyone else, they would have fallen where they were hit, however the lizard underestimated the strength of a Wookiee and although wounded, Halasa continued onward and reached the shuttle.

    Carek witnessed this attack and at that moment his turret finally came online. He engaged the targeting system and began tracking the gold lizard and Dark Jedi. Down in the main cabin, Rathbone had managed to stabilize the mortally wounded Tara. While Leland had joined Three-emm on the bridge. Between the two of them they had the shuttle ready to lift, they just needed word that everyone was aboard and they could go.

    Outside Kyle cut down the last two blues, while Ardent laid down heavy suppressive fire, that allowed the remaining refugees, Nia and Philst to reach the shuttle. With all the refugees aboard, Ardent and Kyle grabbed Lazarus and made their own move to get aboard. The gold lizard was about to unleash more Force lightning, when he saw the rear turret lock in on him. In the turret, Carek could only watch in fustration, as the heavy laser gouged out a section of landing pad as the lizard dove out of the way. The Dark Jedi didn't even flinch.

    Ardent hit the intercom as he boarded. "GO LELAND GO!"

    The shuttle was airborne before the ramp was completely up. Leland easily evaded the fire from the base's turbolasers. As the shuttle clawed for altitude, Ardent took over the rear turret, while Halasa and Kyle manned the other turrets. Carek ran forward to assist on the bridge.

    "How bad?" Asked Carek as he strapped in and began the astrogation plot.

    "Well, right now I'm only reading four TIEs inbound.

    "By the Force! Isn't anything going to go our way?"

    "What's wrong?"

    "The blasted navicomputer is encrypted!"

    "Three-emm do you think you can slice this thing?" Asked Leland. Before the droid could answer, there was the sound of the rear turret firing, followed by the sound of the rear shields being hit. Leland whipped the shuttle through a series of maneuvers so violent, that while the TIEs all missed, none of the gunners could hit either.

    "Leland you're going to have to ease up or will never be able to hit them." Said an exasperated Ardent.

    "Okay, whatever you say, but you guys better hit them first!" Snarled Leland.

    "You can bet on it."

    On the next pass, Leland took a second to scan with the sensors and detected dozens of TIEs, backed up by a pair of star destroyers. And despite Ardent's claim to the contrary and his destroying two of the TIEs, the shuttle was hit and heavily damaged.

    "ARDENT!" Raged Leland while putting the shuttle back into the violent maneuvers that had been the only thing keeping them from being destroyed. "Carek do that instinctive thing! It's the only way, I can't keep this up too much longer. The engines are already red lining."

    "I...okay, give me a second."

    "That's exactly how much time you do have!" There was a wrenching series of hits and when Leland glanced at the shield readout, it confirmed what he feared, the rear shield had failed. "Now! Carek Now!"

    Carek sweat beading on his forehead, tried to center himself in the Force, but the noise and vibration of the turrets firing, the violent manuevering and most of all, the fear that was fighting the calm he was trying to center on, wouldn't let him "see" the course in his mind. "I've got to center!" He thought desperately of the most calming thing he could think of, the meditation stone in the Jedi temple of Master Havsoltek. After a moment of concentration, Carek saw a ghost of a plot trace and he engaged the hyperdrive, just as the starlines formed, the plot trace vanished. He had failed, they were hopelessly lost in hyperspace.

 

    There was complete silence on the bridge of the Revenge. The senior officers stood at attention and prayed to what ever deities they believed in hoping that they would not be singled out.

    “I’ve seen fiascos in my life, but your collective performance on Delfarra borders on criminal incompetence.” Vacendik hissed, his eyes flashing with fury. “Do you know how difficult it was to set up that whole plan? Getting a mole into a position that Team Bantha would be assigned this specific task cost me several favors and I have nothing to show for it. I should have all of you demoted and assigned as guards on Kessel, but I won’t do that.”

    The assembled officers allowed themselves a tiny ray of hope.

    “Kessel would be too easy an assignment for you. Your punishment is to remain here on the Revenge with me. You will never leave my sight until I have those rebels in my grasp. I do not subscribe to most of Lord Vader’s methods, there is one I find very effective. Pain. You will all get a chance to experience pain in its most intimate form. You will each report to the brig at one hour intervals starting with you Rahos.”

    The Imperial Security officer jumped, his expression betrayed his shock.

    “That’s right Lieutenant. Starting with you. One hour with a standard imperial interrogation droid should remind you all whom you serve and to motivate you not to fail me again. Rahos, follow me.”

    Vacendik stormed off the bridge with Lieutenant Rahos following along in stunned silence.


Chapter Fourteen

 

    "Holy hoppin' hells, Carek what did you do?" Gasped Leland as he fought with the wildly spinning controls.

    "I thought I had it, but I was wrong. I have no idea where we're going. Can you abort the jump?"

    Halasa growled low and sharply then tightened his grip on the co-pilot's seat. "I know it's not a good idea, I don't like running out of control anymore than you do, but aborting a jump as almost as dangerous as running out of control." Said Leland.

    Before Carek could respond, the intercom squawked with Rathbone's barely contained fury.

    "ARCHIMEDES! What have you done this time?"

    "I'll have you know, you pompus windbag, that this time, it's not my fault." Leland snapped back.

    "He's right Rath, it's my fault this time." Said Carek before the situation could get any worse. "I blew an instinctive jump. We were discussing whether to risk aborting the jump."

    "You may have decided to become one with the Force, or whatever it is you Jedi do, but I'm not ready to go yet."

    "Rathbone," Carek interrupted. "We are completely out of control. If you have a better idea, start talking."

    There was a long pause before he answered. "Alright, give me five minutes to get set back here. An aborted jump will cause a shipwide power surge, I need to get the power core prepped, then I'm going to strap in the main cabin, And that will give you time to get everyone else ready too."

    "Call us back when you're ready, will have everything set by then." Said Carek.

    "Roger. Engineering out."

    "This is not going to be pleasant." Said Leland.

    "That is a monumental understatement," Carek replied. "I'll get everyone ready."

    Halasa's plaintive wail was like a dirge.

 

    Exactly five minutes later Leland pulled back on the hyperspace control, dropping them back into realspace. The shuttle shuddered and then began to tumble violently, the shuttle was then wracked by a series of explosions when several control panels began to burst from the intense power surge induced by their unscheduled exit from hyperspace. Leland was riddled by shrapnel from his exploding panel and crumpled, forcing Halasa to fight for control of the shuttle alone. In the main cabin, an overhead conduit burst, spraying Kyle with super heated coolant, leaving him mortally scalded.

    After what seemed an eternity, the shuttle responded to Halasa's feverish attempts to regain control. As soon as the ship spun to a halt, Carek unstrapped and ran to Leland who was bleeding profusely from a large piece of shrapnel in the center of his chest. As he pulled a medpac from the emergency stores, he happened to glance outside the ship.

    "What have I done?" He said awestruck, as he looked out the cockpit and into the inky blackness that should have held the starry comfort of realspace, but this time the rebels had reappeared in an area of complete blackness with no stars, no matter how dim, to offer the slightest light, bearing, or hope.

    Carek forced himself back to the more pressing task of trying to stabilize Leland. "Halasa, get Rathbone up here quick. I'm losing Leland!" Halasa bellowed out a full throated Wookiee battle cry as he raced aftwards. "Come on Leland hang in there help is on the way, and I'm not going to let you die!"

    Halasa burst onto the bridge carrying the loudly, and ineffectually, protesting engineer. "For the last time put me down, you over grown simpleton!" Halasa put Rathbone down with an amazing amount of gentleness for someone so large and so clearly agitated.

    "Great Deity!" Cried Rathbone when he saw the extent of Leland's wounds. He continued to speak as he worked. "I had no idea he was hurt so bad, Halasa was nearly incoherent back there. When I didn't understand, he just snatched me me up from where I was working on Kyle..."

    "Kyle? How bad is he hurt? Is anyone else hurt?" Carek interrupted.

    "Kyle's the only one. He sustained critical burns, fortunately I had just got him stable, when Halasa came charging in like a rampaging bantha and carried me in here."

    "Only two wounded, that's pretty good considering how bad the jump went." Said Carek.

    "'Only two wounded' He says," Snarlled Rathbone. "those two wounded were very nearly killed, and they are not out of the woods. And I haven't even gotten to the what's left of the shuttle yet. Sometimes I think you Jedi's spend so much time communing with the Force that it effects your brains. On the more practical side, I think I've got Leland stable enough to move."

    "Okay your point is taken and just for your information, things are even worse than you think. Have you had a chance to look outside yet?"

    "No I haven't. I...I..." Rathbone had obviously lost his train of thought when he looked up from working on Leland to view the total void outside the ship. "Where are we?"

    "We don't know yet." Said Carek shaking his head slowly. "Halasa and I will start working up a plot, and since no one else is in need of your medical skills, I guess it would be a good idea for you to begin checking on the ship's status."

    "Yeah, ship's status. I'll call you when I know something."

    "We'll do the same."

 

    The rebels found that the blast door to engineering had sealed itself, cutting them off from most of the systems shut down by the surge. Rathbone had to reboot the main computer, which had also shut itself down to protect itself from the surge, in order to begin repairing the crippled ship. It took them three hours to restore main power and reroute the sad remnant to maintain life support and to activate the sensors.

    "I've done all I can on this side of the blast door." Said a weary Rathbone. "I've got to get into Engineering to do any more."

    "Okay Rath you're the engineer. it's your call." Said Carek. "The sooner we can get clear of this darkness the better."

    "Come on Three-emm. We've got more work to do." Said Rathbone as he headed for engineering. The little droid beeped and trundled along to catch up with his master. When Three-emm reached to door to engineering, he found Rathbone struggling with the access panel.

    "It looks like the hydralics have fried too, Three-emm, I can't over ride the lockout. Will you give it a try?"

    Three-emm beeped an affirmative and extended his interface probe. He beeped again when the blast door snapped open. Before Rathbone could congratulate him, Three-emm's triumphant beep turned into a shriek of electronic pain that was abruptly cut off by the plasma storm that erupted from engineering. Three-emm's blackened hulk fell to one side when Rathbone, who had been saved from the same fate only because he was not standing directly in front of the door, crumpled to the deck over come by the intense heat. The raging backdraft was more than the damaged life support could handle and the available oxygen was sucked up in seconds. Ardent, Kyle, Leland, Halasa and all of the refugees were felled before they could even react.

    "I've got to get that door closed," Thought Lazarus who, by sheer force of will, managed to remain conscious and was crawling his way toward engineering. "the life support system will replenish the oxygen mixture if I can just remove the heat source."

    Forward, Carek was trying to focus on the Force-which had kept him conscious-to close the blastdoor. "I will not feel fear," He thought through heat blurred eyes. "I will channel my thoughts to seeing that door closed." Sweat beaded on Carek's forehead that had nothing to do with the searing heat that was bathing the shuttle, as he struggled to find the control necessary to manipulate the hatch from ten meters away. "I...can't..." Where his last words as the lack of oxygen over powered his Force driven ability to remain conscious.

    "Close you thrice damned reject from a junkyard." Lazarus stammered as he too fought with the blastdoor, from the corner of his eye he saw Carek fall. "It's just me and you now, AND I INTEND TO WIN!"

    Lazarus took as deep a breath as the oxygen starved atmosphere would allow, using this last breath to reach down deep to the very core of his soul, and with a all-or-nothing burst of energy he managed to find the right combination of inputs that closed the blastdoor just before passing out from anoxia.

    As Lazarus had predicted the life support system, freed from the massive heat of the plasma fire, quickly recycled the atmosphere to the proper oxygen nitrogen mix. When Lazarus' eyes fluttered open, he was looking into the soft green eyes surrounded by silver black fur that could only be Halasa. When the Wookiee saw that Lazarus was awake he let out a joyous roar that brought the rest of the team running.

    "I...guess...it...worked." He managed to croak.

    "And it's a bloody good thing it did," Said Rathbone. "another few seconds and we would have become another permanent addition to the graveyard."

    "Graveyard? L-Look Rath, I'm s-s-still not altogether here. Wh-what are you talking about?"

    "While you were napping, Rath had time to stabilize the power core and get the sensors back on-line." Said Leland, who was wearing an unusually grim expression. "Once we had sensors, I ran a full spectrum scan. We are sitting in the middle of a roughly twenty kilometer circle that contains over seventy ships..."

    "Some date back over three hundred years!" Interrupted Ardent.

    "I was getting to that, if you don't mind, this is my story." Leland glowered. "In the center of all these relics, is a sphere one hundred meters in diameter. Sensors detect no emissions of any kind from the sphere. When we tried to move closer we found that we were held in a tractor of some kind. The ship wouldn't move and the more power we fed into moving, the faster our power reserve started to drop. We had to shut the engines down before we sucked ourselves dry. The only thing the sensors can tell us about the sphere is its diameter. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen."

    Carek sensing the pilot's exasperation, continued for him. "And to make things even more interesting, according to the star charts, we are in the middle of a black hole."

    "That's impossible." Said a stunned Lazarus.

    "Don't you think we know that!" Said Leland. "Carek and I worked up a crude fix based off of the length of time we were in hyperspace and a whole lot of guesswork. The charts have this area clearly marked as a hazard to navigation. I can't explain it. It just is."

    "It's possible that we're the first people to survive entry into a singularity." Rathbone added.

    "Singularity my foot!" Roared Leland. "We are not in a black hole. I don't know where we are, but I do know that no one survives entry into a black hole. So you're going to have to come up with something better than that!"

    "Leland try and calm down," Said Carek. "the last thing we need is to turn on each other. I can't explain what's going on either, so the only course of action is to check out that sphere. We've only got two suits so who's going to go with me?"

    I'll go," Said Kyle immediately. "I've just about had it with being cooped up in here anyway."

    "Good, let's suit up."

    "How are you planning on reaching the sphere? It's more than a kilometer away." Asked Rathbone.

    "My jet pack should get us there with no trouble." Answered Kyle.

    "How are you going to get a jet pack to operate in a vacuum?"

    "My pack has a mount for a small oxygen tank. It won't have the same range or speed as in an atmosphere, but it's more than enough for two klicks."

    "Okay it's your lives. I'll help you suit up." Said an obviously skeptical Rathbone.

    The rebels were finishing up with putting on their bulky space suits, when there was an ear piercing shriek that could have come from only voice.

    "What's K'rigg's problem?" Said Kyle as they started running aftwards to investigate the disturbance. When they reached the aft turret, they found Tara and Revv trying to reason with the Yazarian, who was obviously, going by the distinctive whine of the charging power capacitors, powering up the aft weapons.

    "K'rigg stop this." Said Revv as he pounded on the sealed hatch.

    "He's gone enclosure mad." Said Tara. "Yazirians can't take being indoors for long periods of time, when they reach their limit they sometimes become violent."

    "That's a wonderful character flaw for a starship crewman!" Raged Kyle. "I guess Challis didn't think that we needed to know that little detail."

    "He's never had the madness before." Said Tara sharply.

    "This was not a good time to start."

    "Rath, get to engineering and cut power." Snapped Carek over his shoulder as he realized what K'rigg was trying to do.

    Rathbone was still turning around when he heard the lasers fire. Less than a second passed before the shuttle was rocked by massive explosion that sent him sprawling to the deck.

    "I wonder what I have to fix now?"

    Rathbone had no sooner completed that thought, when the explosive decompression klaxon sounded and the blast door that separated the aft turret from the rest of the ship started to close. Fighting the explosive decompression, everyone in the companionway had to dive free of the guillotining blastdoor. Rathbone was still scrambling to get clear when the door slammed down on his left hand. Screaming in raw agony, he blinked stupidly as he stared at his mangled hand, then mercifully blacked out.

    When the aft turret exploded, it sent shrapnel riccocheting down the companionway. Tara and Revv were closest to the turret and both were critically wounded. Acting without thinking, and almost simultaneously, Kyle and Carek each grabbed one of the falling ex-pirates on the fly and dove to safety.

    "Ardent we need medpacs!" Yelled Carek as he checked Tara's vital signs.

    "I'm not sure a medpac can save Revv. He's in real bad shape," Said Kyle. "is there anything the Force can do to save him?"

    "Yes, but let's give the medpacs a chance.

    Ardent slid to a stop next to his comrades with three medpacs. "These are all that's left." He said breathlessly.

    The medpacs proved to be all their manufacturers claimed they were and both Revv and Tara were stabilized on the first try. Leland entered the main cabin as Rathbone, Tara, and Revv were carried in. "As you probably expect, the blast came from the sphere." He said as he helped to make the wounded comfortable. "How bad are they?"

    "Tara and Revv are going to be out of it for a while." Replied Ardent. "Rathbone has lost all the fingers on his left hand."

    "Lost? Couldn't the medpac do anything?

    "The fingers were completely splintered," Said Carek. "there just isn't enough left to save. A med-droid in a full capital ship sickbay might be able to do something, but the damage is just too extensive for a medpac. On a completely different subject, it looks like an EVA is going to be needed afterall."

    "Yeah, it looks like." Leland replied.

    "Let's get this over with." Said Kyle. "I want out of here."

 

    Since the two rebels were already suited up, they headed for the airlock. Once they entered and the airlock completed its cycle, Kyle hit the button to open to outer hatch. Nothing happened.

    "Now what." Carek said shaking his head in total disgust.

    "I don't know. There's power, but it won't open." Kyle said as he tried to activate the manual release.

    Carek activated to intercom. "Lazarus."

    "Go ahead."

    "Have you been monitoring us?"

    "Yes I have. I'm on my way to engineering now."

    "Thanks." Carek released the intercom switch and turned to Kyle. "You know what Kyle?"

 

    "What's that?"

    "This 'simple escort mission' is turning into the most convoluted mission we've ever been on."

    Before Kyle could respond the intercom squawked.

    "Carek, this is Laz, you're not going to believe this one."

    "Try me."

    "I checked all the circuitry, relays, and power feeds to the airlock and it looks like all the outer hatchs are magnetically sealed from the outside.

    "And let me guess what that 'outside' source is."

    "Using that Jedi farseeing trick, Eh?" Said Kyle.

    "Kyle, not now." Returning to the intercom. "We're coming out. Meet us on the bridge."

 

    "Okay Carek, you're supposed to be the brains," Leland started. "what's the plan?"

    "You know I'm not a tech, Replied Carek. "What can you tell me about defeating a remotely powered magnetic seal?"

    "Sirs if I might comment?" Said SM3PO from the corner of the bridge.

    "Go on Sam." Said Carek.

    "Oh great, now we're reduced to the wisdom of a protocol droid." Interrupted Leland. "We're never going to get out of here."

    "Let him talk." Said Lazarus sharply. "We need all the help we can get, organic and mechanical."

    "Thank you sir. The only way to deactivate a locally powered seal, is to short the magnetic pulse with a positive power coupler."

    "Brilliant, tin man," Leland interrupted again. "We all appreciate that excellent escape trick, however we are facing a remotely powered seal. How exactly do you think we're going to manage shorting the pulse, when the source is a kilometer away?"

    "You can't." Replied the flustered droid.

    "EXACTLY!" Leland roared. "Now answer me a simpler question. Why are we wasting our time with this bucket of bolts?"

    Lazarus rose slowly to his feet. "Leland, what we are doing, is 'wasting our time' with your constant interruptions. If you don't shut up, I am going to knock every tooth from that pompus mouth of yours. Now, if you know what's good for you, you'll let Sam finish."

    Well aware of the amount of tension between the two men, Sam used that moment to try and defuse the situation. "Thank you sir. As I said the seal can not be shorted, so we have to use the one exit that is not sealed."

    "Wait a minute Sam." Said Lazarus. "I checked myself. Every hatch on this ship is sealed."

    "Not the blast door that is closing off the wrecked turret."

    The team sat stunned for a moment, then they all trid to talk at once.

    "Of course..."

    "I must be getting senile..."

    "Well what do you know, the tin man's right..."

    Then for the first time since they dropped out of hyperspace they began to laugh. First Leland, then Halasa, then the rest, all broke into a much needed honest laugh.

    "Thank you Sam," Said Carek wiping tears from his eyes and still chuckling. "You have helped us twofold. You've found a way out of the shuttle and you've broken the tension. Your programmer would be proud."

    "Glad to help, Sir."

 

    The rebels had to close off the aft section of the ship before they could open the blastdoor to the turret. While the others prepped the ship, Kyle pulled Carek aside.

    "Carek, I think someone with technical abilities makes more sense on the EVA than me." He said. "I can show Laz how to use my jet pack while he suits up."

    "You okay Kyle?" Asked Carek gently.

    "Yes, of course I am. I'm not afraid or anything, you should know that. It's just that I didn't have an idea of how to get that hatch open and I don't think that just because I own the jet pack, that it makes me the most qualified to go.

    "I agree with you completely. I was just about to bring that subject up myself."

    "I think you should take Sam too, he's proved his usefulness."

    "Yes he has. Let me help you out of that suit."

    Lazarus got suited up, while they both listened to Kyle's crash course in jet pack operations. The two waited for the aft section of the shuttle to depressurize. Once ready, Lazarus hit the open button and this time the hatch opened.

    "I think our first order of business is to see if we deactivate the magnetic seal on the airlock." Said Carek.

    "It's worth a try," Replied Lazarus. "but Sam is right, there just isn't anyway to defeat a remotely powered magnetic seal. Isn't that right Sam?"

    Sam didn't answer. The two rebels turned to find Sam just outside the wrecked turret with his optical lights very dim. "Sam! What's wrong?" shouted Lazarus as he moved to the droid's side.

    "I...am...losing...power..."

    "Quick Carek help me get him back inside!"

    "Stand clear Laz. I've got him." Responded Carek as he used the Force to lift the ailing droid back into the shuttle.

    "Maxenties to Archimedes."

    "Go ahead Laz."

    "Something's wrong with Sam. Carek is moving him back into the ship. See if you can help him."

    "I'll look at him, with his diagnostic routines I should be able to manage."

    "Rathbone? "I'm glad to see your back in the picture."

    "Fortunately I'm right handed, otherwise I doubt if I could be of much use."

    "Contact me when you know what's wrong with Sam."

    "Will do." Lazarus then moved to rejoin Carek.

    "Laz, have you taken a look at your suit's power reading?"

    "No. I...what? I'm down to forty percent and falling."

    "Mine too. I looks like that sphere is not only keeping us tractored in place, it's also slowly draining away any power source that it comes in contact with."

    "The power drain won't effect our air supply, but we will lose communications and our heaters."

    "I can maintain my body temperature. I'm worried about you."

    "As long as we're not out for more than an hour, I'll be alright."

    "That will leave us fifty-six minutes."

    "What do you want to try first?"

    "I think we should head for the sphere."

    "Okay then, hang on and I'll pulse the jet pack."

    The two men oriented themselves and began moving slowly toward the sphere. They were less than halfway there when they received a badly broken transmission from the shuttle.

    "...rek. Laz. Don't...sphere. Head...rest...freigh..."

    Lazarus placing his helmet against Carek's in an old survival trick. "Can you make that out?"

    "Only part of it."

    "I don't have enough power left to transmit."

    "I don't either, but I can try something else."

 

    On the shuttle, Ardent suddenly started.

    "What's wrong with you?" Asked Kyle.

    "I think I'm in contact with the Jedi."

    "Can he hear our transmission?" Added Leland.

    "Something about no power. He wants me to concentrate on the message we're trying to send."

    "They're doomed." Said Leland.

 

    After a few minutes of very deep concentration Carek said. "They want us to go to the nearest freighter and check it's computer."

    "How are we going to find a freighter in this darkness?"

    In answer to Lazarus' question, a very low power laser bolt lit up a small portion of the eternal night.

    "That looks like our new course." Answered Carek. "Let's go."

    It took them just under five minutes total flight time to reach the long dead ship. They got around the sealed airlock by entering through a large breech in the hull. They made their way to the bridge and found the main computer, like the rest of the ship, had no power.

    "Carek give me your blaster's power pack."

    "Good thinking Laz," He responded handing over his blaster. "How long to you think a blaster pack will power that computer?"

    "Too many variables to say for sure."

    Lazarus worked for several minutes before being rewarded with a dim flickering on the console. Lucky for the rebels the computer was in Vrusk, the language of an insectoid race that they understood. Lazarus had to work quickly for he was unsure how long the computer would function.

    "There's a lot of damage to the core memory. They were caught some  sixty-five years ago. Carek look at this."

    Carek moved in for a closer look, which wasn't easy due to their space helmets. "They had a Jedi on board!"

    "Yeah, sixty-five wears ago Jedis were still pretty common."

    "What's that part after 'losing power rapidly?' Vrusk isn't one of my stronger languages."

    "It says: 'Trandu tried to mind-touch the sphere and now his mind is gone. I have no choice now, but to hope that by feeding all remaining power to the weapons that we can destroy the orb.' That's the last entry."

    "Well it's obvious that that didn't work." Said Carek. "I had been entertaining the idea of trying to mind-touch the sphere myself, it looks like it's a good thing I didn't after all. By the way, how are you holding up? You've been without heat for close to fifteen minutes."

    "I'll manage as long as I keep moving. Let's try the next ship."

    "Let's see if we can reach the ship closest to the sphere."

    "Any reason?"

    "Nothing I can put my hand on. Just a feeling."

    "We have nothing else better to try. Contact the ship and tell them to do that laser pulse thing again."

    The two rebels reached the next ship in only four minutes. As they approached they could see that the ship had also tried to fight its way free of the sphere. The hull was rent in several places, but despite all the damage, it was clear that this ship was no freighter. The ship sported several weapons mounts, most destroyed, but two proton torpedo launchers were still undamaged.

    "The Misfit." Said Lazarus reading the faded nameplate. "That sounds familiar."

    "It should, there was a whole series of holos made about the Misfit and the notorious smuggler Ridge 'Neverdie' Aramnon."

    "Of course! I remember now. I always thought that Captain Neverdie Aramnon was just a story."

    "I did too. Let's see if there's any information left in her computer, after a hundred and twenty years."

    They boarded through one of the many hull breechs and made their way to the bridge. Lazarus tried for close to ten minutes to hot wire the computer, but it had been too long. The computer was blank.

    "Carek, I think I'm good for one more ship then we'll have to go back."

    "Okay I'll contact the ship now. We'll stop at one that's on the way back."

    Once again Carek concentrated and the low power laser pulses began illuminating their path. The chosen ship turned out to be a Sullustan scout ship. The bridge of the small ship had been wrecked by an internal explosion.

    "There's no point in checking the computer here." Said Carek as poked through the remains of the bridge. "Are you up to a quick search of the rest of the ship?"

    "As long as we make it quick. My toes are starting to go numb."

    The search had been fruitless until Lazarus opened the hatch to engineering. Lazarus' frantic waving brought Carek over at the best speed he could manage in zero G.

    "What have you got?" Said Carek as soon as he could touch his helmet to Lazarus'

    "We've hit the jackpot!" Said an ecstatic Lazarus pointing to a large case he had opened that contained four unremarkable blocks. "These are dry fusion blocks! Each one of these could power the ship for a week! This one crate alone is worth a severe case of frostbite, which is what I'll have if we don't get back soon."

    "Okay Laz, if you say so. I'll contact the ship now."

 

    This time when Carek reached out to the ship, there was an obvious delay in response. And when the laser pulses started, there were fewer pulses of shorter duration.

    "Something's wrong I can feel it." Said Carek.

    "I can too. I'm going to use up all of the jet pack's auxiliary oxygen to increase speed. We should get there in less than three minutes."

    "Good idea. We can recharge the jet pack when we get back."

    Concern for their friends and concentration on following the faint laser pulses, caused neither of the two space walkers to notice the large object that was moving across their path until it was almost right in front of them.

    Lazarus twisted the controls violently, nothing happened. "I can't maneuver! There's no oxygen!"

    "Ardent! Light up the object bearing 426 mark 9 now!" Thought Carek to his distant friend. The next pulse splayed across the unknown object, painting it in an eerie ghost light. The object in the split second that it was illuminated looked like a large spider. Five meters in diameter with multiple legs dangling below the large central disk-like body.

    "It's a probe droid!" Said Carek calming his fear and reaching out with the Force to nudge the droid out of their way.

    "I thought that was it Carek." Said an obviously shaken Lazarus as they reached the shuttle. "I thought of every space legend I had ever heard had reached out to swallow me whole."

    "I have to admit that that laser pulse made that probe droid look like a living space legend alright. It's been a long time since I've been so completely caught off guard."

    When the two space walkers re-entered the shuttle, they were met by Ardent who was sporting a broken nose. "It took you long enough, things have gotten a little out of control here."

    "I felt that something was wrong the last time I contacted you, what went wrong?"

    At that moment an alarm klaxon sounded and the emergency lights snapped on.

    "That would be life support failing." Said Ardent. "Right after you left, we started losing power rapidly and had to shut down everything but life support. Those laser pulses have just about wiped what was left."

    "You can tell us the rest in engineering," Said Lazarus pulling one of the fusion blocks out of the crate. "We've found something that will help."

 

    "Well as I was saying," Ardent continued when they reached engineering. "The laser pulses were a great idea, however by the time you contacted me the third time we were just about drained. Rathbone wouldn't leave you guys stranded, so he routed just enough power to keep one laser firing so guys could get back, but that drained the last of the power."

    "Thanks Rath, you're a wiz." Said Carek.

    "No you guys are the wizards. If you hadn't found these fusion blocks, nothing that I did would have mattered in the slightest." Responded Rathbone from behind the power core where he and a partially repaired Three-emm were hooking up the fusion block.

    "That doesn't explain the nose job Ardent." Said Lazarus.

    "One thing at a time Laz." Answered Ardent. "When life support started to fail, Merrg lost it."

    "Lost it is putting it mildly." Added Rathbone. "I was working on Three-emm here, when there was this Deity awful howling from the main cabin.

I ran forward to find Halasa already laid out and SM3PO in pieces."

    "He destroyed Sam?" Blurted Lazarus.

    "Not destroyed, but he needs a lot of repairs." Said Ardent. "Sam was prattling on about something and Merrg just snapped. He grabbed Sam and smashed him over Halasa's head. A protocol droid is not designed to take that kind of punishment and neither is a Wookiee's head, they both went down with their lights out."

    "I didn't see that part," Rathbone interrupted. "by the time I got there, Leland and Ardent were trying to keep Merrg from wrecking the rest of the ship. Ardent baited Merrg, but I guess he misjudged how fast a mad Wookiee is, and took that punch that left him with the altered beak you see now. When Merrg took the bait, Leland stunned him with a blaster rifle."

    "Going by your discription Rath, it sounds like a broken nose is a small price to pay." Said Carek. "Where was Kyle during all this?"

    "Keeping Nia company." Answered Rathbone with a snort.

    "You're kidding?" Gasped Lazarus.

    "You should have see him come stumbling out of her quarters with a blaster in one hand and holding a towel around himself with the other." Rathbone couldn't contain himself any longer and began to laugh.

    "Why is all the interesting things happen when I'm not around." Said Lazarus.

    "We have got to get out of here." Muttered Carek. "Rath, have we got enough power for the sensors?"

    "Only for a few minutes. Why?"

    "I want to try and find that probe droid we ran into. There's a good chance that it might just have the key to getting out of here. And based on how everyone is acting, we can't get out of here soon enough."

 

    It took Leland less than a minute to locate the droid with the sensors and it took Kyle less than five to retrieve it. Lazarus and Rathbone examined the droid and were able to remove the memory core in less than twenty, however it was when they tried to access the droid's memory was when they ran into trouble.

    "I realize there's no rationalizing with a berserk Wookiee Ardent," Said a thoroughly disgusted Carek. "but Merrg picked the worst possible time to wreck Sam, that memory module is in a completely unknown, ancient language and this is one time we really could use a protocol droid."

    "I understand that, but as I said earlier, there was no way anyone could have prevented Merrg from wrecking that droid. I should know I'm the one who got a broken nose trying to stop him. I don't pretend to know that much about droids, droid technology is completely unknown on my world, but is Sam a total write off?"

 

    "That's what Lazarus is checking on now. As long as Sam's brain and vox-synth box are intact, we can get a translation fairly quickly. If not then we a back to square one." Just then the intercom beeped.

    "Carek great news. Can you come to engineering?" Said Rathbone.

    "On the way."

 

    When Carek reached engineering, he found Sam, with only his upper torso and left arm still attached, hooked directly to one of the dry fusion blocks. Rathbone and Lazarus were still fine tuning a set of jury-rigged controls that had been connected directly to the droid's open head.

    "We've managed to get Sam functional!" Said a weary Lazarus. "I'll work on the rest of him later, but for now, we have access to his translation abilities and he can start cracking those files. Isn't that right Sam?"

    "Yes sir." The battered droid responded with a tinny voice.

    "Don't worry Sam as soon as he can, Laz will finish putting you back together."

    "I understand Master Carek. I will begin working on those files now, based on their size it will take me approximately three hours."

    "Approximately Sam?" Said Rathbone.

    "I'm sorry for being so imprecise, but I am only functioning at seventy-four efficiency and I am simply unable to be more accurate."

    "You have nothing to be sorry for Sam," Said Lazarus gently. "we all understand the conditions that you've been forced to deal with, you just do the best you can."

    "Thank you sir."

    "What do we do now?" Asked Carek.

    "We wait." Snapped Lazarus. "Sorry Carek, I'm a little on edge."

    "I can tell, why don't you get some sleep while we wait."

    "The starboard phase inducers need aligning."

    "I can handle that, you go now." Rathbone said as he pushed Lazarus toward the main cabin.

    "Thanks Rath, let's go Laz, there's nothing more to be done until Sam's ready. Something tells me you'll need to be fresh when he's finished."

    "I don't know if I would like getting those unsolicited Jedi insights all the time."

    "It's something you learn to live with just like anything else."

 

    It took Sam three hours and twenty-eight minutes to translate the contents of the probe droid's memory. There were two large files, the first was an extensive description of the sphere, the alien's sensor technology was apparently able to scan the sphere far better than the shuttle's, which was identified as organic metal. The second was a theoretical explanation of how to disrupt the sphere's tractor net with a series of widely dispersed high energy pulses in conjunction with a subspace radio pulse directed at the sphere's organic skin.

    "Who ever designed that probe knew what they doing." Said a very impressed Rathbone as team Bantha discussed Sam's findings.

    "I guess it's the ultimate irony that the only thing in this graveyard with sensors capable of scanning the sphere was also unable to test its theory due to being unarmed." Said a grim Kyle.

    "That's unusually philosophical for you Kyle." Said Leland.

    "Considering that we're surrounded by the hulks of over seventy ships, it's real easy to get philosophical." Kyle insisted.

    "That's very true," Said Carek. "but now that we have a plan, there's no need to begin contemplating our mortality. Rathbone you and Leland begin working on that subspace pulse. Laz and I will use Kyle's jet pack to take one of the fusion blocks over to the Misfit and set those proton launchers to fire a wide dispersion pattern. Ardent, Halasa and Kyle will rig the last fusion block to power the hyperdrive for a quick hyperspace jump and keep a close eye on the passengers to prevent any more rampages. Any questions?"

    There were none and the rebels set about to there assigned tasks. They were ready to go in just under an hour.

 

    "Okay Carek, We're as ready as we'll ever be." Said Leland from the pilot's seat. Halasa from the co-pilot's seat, growled his agreement.

    "Is everyone ready?" Carek asked over the intercom.

    "Engineering Aye. Laz will trigger the relay to fire the protons and I will engage the hyperdrive on your mark." Responded Rathbone.

    "Main cabin Aye. All passengers and loose items secured for jump." Kyle added.

    "Okay Leland, subspace pulse in five, four, three, two, one, Mark!"

    The subspace array had been augmented by a jury-rigged waveguide pointed directly at the sphere to concentrate the full power of the transmitter into the tightest beam possible. The proton launchers of the Misfit had been timed to fire just as the full force of the pulse lashed sphere.

    When the subspace pulse hit the sphere, Carek was assaulted by a powerful psychic scream of pain. "By the Force! It was alive!" Was his last thought as he blacked out from the magnitude of the dying creature's anguish.

    When the protons exploded, everyone could feel the shuttle lurch. "We're free! Now Halasa, full power!" Yelled an exultant Leland

    They shot forward with such an acceleration that it actually over came the shuttle's inertia dampeners. Leland had pre-plotted several courses based on a conjectural plot he had worked up, his fingers were flying across the navigational computer as he tried to firm up their location, now that the field of blackness had collapsed and had revealed the stars for the first time since they had been trapped.

    The effect of the subspace pulse and proton bursts far surpassed the long dead probe's expectations and the shuttle was rocked by a violent shockwave as the sphere burst asunder. The resultant blastwave began consuming everything in it's path and was gaining on the slowly accellerating shuttle. Desperately Leland punched in the last entry and pulled back on the hyperspace control just as the blastwave caught up with them, the stars stretched into starlines and became the comforting mottled effect of hyperspace, they had made it.