Chapter Fifteen

 

 

 

††† It had been a long twelve days. The captured Imperial shuttle carrying team Bantha and six refugees had been badly damaged escaping Imperial forces and then further damaged when caught in an unknown space anomaly. The primary hyperdrive was not functioning, forcing the rebels to limp along on the shuttle's hyperdrive backup. The slow trip to the planet Fnalla, where the refugees would be granted their asylum, had frayed everyone's nerves and everyone was looking forward to their imminent arrival.

††† "I still say it was an ancient trap," Said Rathbone Loegin to an obviously unconvinced Leland Archimedes. "it was probably set up millenia ago to interdict travel, like mines channel movement on the battlefield."

††† "It's always the same thing with you engineer-types, everything has an technological answer." Leland replied his voice dripping with contempt. "What makes you so sure that that beast didn't evolve naturally?

††† "Well, why is it flyboys seem to have an endless supply of bravery, but you all seem to have to share the same brain?" Retorted Rathbone.

††† Before Leland could reply the five minutes to realspace alarm beeped, causing both men to look up and smile, argument forgotten.

††† "Finally!" The two men said simultaneously.

††† "I was beginning to think that Challis had used some Jedi trick to trap us with those cry babies for all eternity." Said Leland as he began preparing the ship for realspace.

††† "That would be quite a trick," Replied Rathbone. "but for a change, I'm inclined to agree. This escort mission has turned into the most drawn out fiasco we've ever been involved with."

††† "Well, we'll be done baby sitting in fifteen minutes." Added Leland as he toggled the intercom. "All hands prepare for realspace in four minutes."

††† A cheer went up in the main cabin and Carek Argonaut came forward to join the two rebels on the bridge.

††† "I have never been so greatful to arrive at a planet I've never been to before in my life." Said Carek.

††† "So, I see it is possible to crack that vaunted Jedi calm after all," Chuckled Rathbone. "that's made the whole trip worth it for me."

††† "Rathbone, a Jedi is..." Began Carek.

††† "Save it for later Carek," Interrupted Leland, his hand lovingly curling around the hyperdrive transition control. "we hit realspace in, five, four, three, two, one. Now!"

††† The shuttle dropped back to realspace with a vivid burst of starlines into the Fnalla system. An area that, when the rebels had been briefed what now seemed like eons ago, was a secure place for the refugee's asylum. The rebels didn't even have time for a collective sigh of relief, when they were interrupted by the comm unit beeping from an urgent hail.

††† "The system patrol is really on the ball." Said Rathbone. "I'll answer." However, before he could reach the transmit button, Carek intercepted his hand. Rathbone turned toward the would-be Jedi and saw that his face was clouded, as if he were in deep concentration.

††† Leland uttered a long string of curses, in an impressive number of languages, from where he was performing a quick sensor scan of the system. "I thought this was supposed to be a secure system! Youíre right about the system patrol being on the ball, the only problem is: they're IMPERIALS!"

††† "Halasa to the bridge! Kyle, Ardent, man the turrets; something's wrong and we got TIEs inbound." Said Carek into the intercom from where he was strapping himself in at the navigator's console. "Rath, you better get to engineering, this may get a little sticky."

††† "Will this farce never end! We'll never get rid of those...those... those Tiberion life leeches!" Rathbone raged through clinched teeth as he exited the bridge.

††† Halasa barrelled onto the bridge and growled fiercely.

††† "I don't know what happened!" Leland snarled back. "All I know is we got a flight of TIE/ins on an intercept vector and this tub is only putting out seventy-eight percent of rated sublight speed!"

††† "Hra rolfgha chak?"

††† "That's a good question." Answered Carek. "I guess our best course will be to head for Tatooine. Dag Caltare should be able to tell us an alternate hideout. Leland, while I'm doing the plot for Tatooine, can you run a full sensor sweep of the system?"

††† "All ready done." Snapped Leland. "I'm picking up a Strike cruiser and two squadrons of TIE/ins, lifting from Fnalla Prime where thestarport just reeks with Imperial wave band power sources. And in case you're interested, those TIE/ins will be in range in ten seconds."

††† Just then, as if to confirm Leland's report, the shuttle's turrets began to fire. Halasa corkscrewed up and to the right evading most of the TIE fighter's fire, however the ship shuddered from several hits and the shield's status display flickered briefly from green to amber before returning to green.

††† "We can't take too many more of those." Muttered Leland.

 

††† "That's it, just a little closer..." Said Kyle from the starboard turret as he coaxed the lead TIE fighter. "NOW!" The twin streams of fire converged with the Imperial when Halasa rolled the shuttle to the right and the lead TIE fighter spun away with its port wing shattered and on fire.

††† "First blood!" Kyle yelled across to Ardent in the port turret.

††† "That's only because we rolled right. I..." The rest of what Ardent was going to say was drowned out by the sound of the port turret's twin lasers. "Yah brin Daga! First kill!" Whooped a triumphant Ardent as the TIE he was tracking blossomed into a fireball. "A hundred credits says I'll get the next kill!"

††† "Don't let one lucky shot go to your head. I'll take that bet! Here they come!"

††† Kyle never even had a chance.

††† The shuttle executed a deadman's shuffle to the left and Ardent's fire swept through the lead TIE. The Imperial desperately tried to avoid the twin streams of death and swerved directly in front of his wingman, who was caught with his attention locked on the near helpless shuttle. The motion in the corner of his eye brought the wingman's head around, but it was far too late. The TIEs collided and both spun away wrecked.

††† "Pay up Hunter!" Ardent yelled to Kyle.

††† "No deal Merc." Laughed Kyle. "The bet was 'next kill' and neither of those TIEs looked 'killed' to me."

††† "Why you slick..." Responded Ardent hotly, then he began to chuckle.

"You got me that time. It was on a technicality that only a son of a Hutt would use, but you got me."

††† "You would have claimed the same 'technicality' if I had left you the same opening and you know it."

††† "You got me there too."

††† "Well my targeting scope is showing a two full squadron of TIEs closing in and another squadron launching from that Strike cruiser, I'll bet you a hundred credits per kill and fifty per cripple."

††† "You got a...hey! No fair!" Ardent cried as he saw the starlines that announced the shuttle was jumping to hyperspace. "I guess the bet's off."

††† "That goes without saying, let's go see where we're going."

 

††† "I have no way of knowing how the safe haven was compromised," Said Carek to team Bantha and the refugees, who had gathered in the shuttle's main cabin to hear the latest information that the displaced

rebels had. "but, Leland's scans of the system left no doubt that the system was completely in Imperial hands. While Rathbone and Lazarus jury-rigged the backup hyperdrive for one last jump, I had time to prepare for an instinctive astrogation. I choose the nearest planet on the Rim where I knew we could find a rebel contact and that just happens to be Tatooine."

††† "Are you sure that's wise?" Asked Kyle. "After all, we didn't exactly make any friends the last time we were there."

††† "I agree Kyle, but I didn't have that much time to choose and we don't have any choice now. When I mentioned that Laz and Rath had rigged the hyperdrive for one last jump, I wasn't being dramatic, when we reach our destination the entire hyperdrive will have to be replaced. I can only hope that Dag can help us find were the Alliance is hiding."

††† "That's if he knows." Said Lazarus. "You all remember how long and roundabout it was to recontact the Alliance the last time we got separated."

††† "Captain Argonaut?" Nia Glasion asked timidly.

††† "Yes?"

††† "What will you do about a home for us?"

††† "At this point Nia, I just don't know. When we re-establish contact with the Alliance, we'll have to find you a another haven."

††† "I'll never know why I let myself believe that I would be safer with the Rebellion." Muttered Philst Anond.

††† "It's not to late for you to rejoin the Empire pretty boy." Snarled Revv through clenched teeth.

††† "Now see here." Philst snarled back and lurched to his feet. "I've had about enough of your attitude, you unwashed brigand!"

††† "ENOUGH!" Roared Carek. "I've had more than enough of the lot of you! It will take four days to reach Tatooine and it's anybodies guess as to how long it will take to find a secure safe haven. Until then you will find a way to get along and I better not have to repeat myself again!"

††† A murmuring growl followed the awkward silence.

††† "No Merrg," Said Carek softly. "We're not going to leave you stranded. I'm sorry everyone, I lost my composure for a moment there. However I am serious about every one having to get along, we just don't have a choice. Rathbone, how are we set shipwise?"

††† "Power is only at seventy-one percent. Sublight and hyperdrives are a write off, we'll have thrusters and repulsors to land with. Shields and weapons are marginal. I know that sounds grim, but don't worry, we'll reach Tatooine just fine. We just won't be leaving without a complete rebuild. Also, the ship trap drained every power pack on the ship; blasters, comlinks, everything."

††† "And to think," Said Leland. "we were complaining that this mission was going to be too easy."

 

††† Rathbone had been absolutely correct about the shuttle reaching Tatooine safely. Aside from a violent shudder coming out of hyperspace, the trip had been uneventful. Not wanting a repeat of the spectacular crash that claimed the Tigershark, Carek had vetoed trying to avoid sneak past approach control via the desert. A lethargic approach control didn't challenge the rebels and Leland was able, with Halasa's help, to nurse the battered shuttle down into an equally battered docking bay.

††† With a last gasp that could not be completely attributed to pressure equalization, the shuttle wheezed to a halt and the rebels all but stampeded out into the unrelenting heat of the twin suns, greatful to finally able to set foot on a planet, even one as inhospitable as Tatooine.

††† "This place just never gets any better." Said Kyle, who along with Halasa had won the lottery to be first out of the now much hated shuttle.

††† Halasa sniffed the air and then whuffed his agreement.

††† "Enough of the chit-chat for Diety's sake already." Snapped Leland. "No one's shooting at you, so get out the way so we all can bask in all the glory 'Dustball' has to offer."

††† The rebels all disembarked with obvious relish, despite the oppressive heat and moved into the nearest shade.

††† "That will be five hun'ert credits." Said a begrimed man that had wandered out from the docking bay's office. "Up front and in cash."

††† "Five hundred credits!" Blurted Rathbone. "Do you think we just fell off the repulsor truck an hour ago? That's out and out piracy!"

††† "Goin' by the shape that there Imperial shuttle is in, you should'na go 'round sayin' that there word Pie-racy too loud, young feller."

††† "You sir, are obviously a man of the galaxy, my name's Kellen." Said Kyle slipping his arm around the man's shoulders and steering him back toward his office. "I bet you know where some...travellers, that are...down on their luck might be able to trade in a...previously

owned shuttle for a less conspicuous ship with no questions or bureaucratic involvements?"

††† "If'n you ain't got the nerve of an Ewok tryin' to crash a Wookiee family reunion." Smiled the grizzled mechanic. "My name's Parn, an' I might just know someone, who might know someone, that's willin' ta trade wid ya, but you better have some cold hard creds to go with that warm heart an' smooth tongue."

††† "May I speak with my companions for a moment? I need to see just how big a contribution to your employer's pension fund we can make."

 

††† "Employer's pension fund? Oh, I got ya. Sure go ahead."

††† "He's willing to deal," Kyle said as soon as he rejoined the group. "but it has to be in cash."

††† "Okay guys," Said Carek. "what are our critical shortages, besides blaster packs?"

††† "I've got to have at least five hundred credits if I'm going to be able to repair that med droid, Three-emm, and Sam." Said Lazarus.

††† "The blaster packs should run us about two hundred more." Added Ardent.

††† "And just to be safe," Said Leland adding furiously. "three hundred more to cover all other expenses. So let's call it an even thousand."

††† "You heard him." Said Rathbone counting out his meager supply of credits. "Are we going to be reimbursed for this?"

††† "Sure Rath, I'll make sure I get a receipt." Growled Kyle. "This isn't the time to start worrying about itemized deductions."

††† "That's it?" Muttered Leland after seeing the depressingly small total that the rebels had scraped together.

††† "We haven't been to pay call since we started this farce," Said Kyle. "how much do you think we're supposed to have?"

††† "Never mind." Responded Leland. "Is that going to be enough?"

††† "It's going to have to be." Said Kyle over his shoulder as he headed back to Parn's office.

††† "Cut to th' creds. I've taken a liken to ya, but I ain't got much use for being buttered." Said Parn before Kyle could open his mouth.

††† "Okay that shuttle is worth a quarter million credits new, give me fifteen percent of that and I can throw in two thousand credits."

††† "Now who fell off of the repulsor truck an hour ago. I'll give you five percent an' I want ten thousand."

††† "Fourteen and twenty-five hundred."

††† "Six an' nine."

††† "Give us a break Parn. I can go twelve and three."

††† "That thing's as hot as the Dune Sea an' you know it. Seven an' seven."

††† "Ten and thirty-five."

††† "Eight an' six. That's my last offer."

††† "I can accept eight percent," Said Kyle pulling out the rebels entire fortune. "but I can only go thirty-seven fifty."

††† The play of emotions on Parn's face wasn't easy to read, but Kyle had been making a living by judging people's faces for years and it was plain to Kyle that Parn wanted to help.

††† "Th' Imperials will toss me in the spice mines if'n I get caught with that thing, but I ain't gonna send you packin'." Parn said after a long thoughtful pause. "I got an old scout ship out back, it's a Vangaard Pathfinder that's had most of its cargo bay converted to crew quarters. It's got room for eleven an' twenty tons o' cargo. I can give it to you for that there hulk an' thirty-seven fifty. That's the best I can do. Deal?"

††† "Deal." Said Kyle as he shook the old man's hand.

††† "Ship's in docking bay seventy-three. You take good care of her."

††† "That I will."

 

††† Two hours later a dispirited Carek, Halasa, and Leland were sitting in a small tapcafe poking at the remnants of their lunch after failing to find any trace of Caltare. Rathbone was aboard the new ship, that Kyle had named the Misplot, giving it a complete inspection and keeping an eye on the refugees. Lazarus had gone to find his much needed droid parts, while Ardent and Kyle went for the equally needed blaster packs.

††† "I don't understand," Leland grumbled. "we went to every one of Dag's hangouts and nobody would even admit to knowing who he is."

††† Halasa growled out a short reply.

††† "I know he's got a price on his head," Leland replied a little too sharply. "or are you forgetting that I was there when the Imperials first tried to capture him, lo those many centuries ago. I'm telling you, this wasn't someone covering for a buddy, this was actual fear."

††† "I have agree with Leland, Halasa." Said Carek looking up from his cup of wortleberry juice. "I could sense fear everytime we mentioned his name, fear and something else I've been trying to put a name on all morning. I'll be spaced if I can..."

††† Carek's voice trailed off when he noticed that the tapcafe had gotten quiet. Turning he saw why, three toughs; a Human, a Rodian, and oddly enough, an Ithorian had bulled their way into the tapcafe. His fledgling ability to sense other's emotions, for once, clearly alerted him to their intentions.

††† "Bounty hunters!" He yelled as he jumped to his feet.

††† Halasa reacted instantly by swinging their table in a wide arc that caught the Ithorian off guard and knocked the hammerheaded alien cold. The other two bounty hunters responded by hitting Halasa with a hail of stun bolts that sent the raging Wookiee to the ground as well.

††† Leland took full advantage of the hunter's natural inclination to concentrate on a Wookiee and pounced on the human, the two falling to the ground in a tangle of limbs, each trying to gain control of the blaster. Leland managed get a solid grip on the human's blaster and wrenched it away. When the human lunged at Leland he ran directly into a stunbolt and dropped like puppet with its strings cut.

††† As Leland struggled, Carek paused to reach out with the Force and return Halasa to the waking world. The Rodian, thinking the motionless human was of no danger, closed into hand-to-hand range with what he thought would be an easy target. Carek sensed his approach and began trading blows with the Rodian. Halasa looked up from where he had come to and saw Carek struggling with the stronger alien. Springing to his feet, Halasa snatched the Rodian off his feet and bodily slammed him into a table, ending the fight.

††† "Let's boost before anyone thinks to call security!" Leland yelled from over his shoulder as he made his way for the rear exit.

††† "Good idea," Carek said following Leland's lead. "Halasa grab one of those hunters. We need answers!"

††† The rebels ran through the back alleys of Mos Eisley for several blocks, only stopping when they had found the unoccupied, battered remains of an abandoned docking bay.

††† "Gra-rahaargh?" Huffed a winded Halasa

††† "How am I supposed to know 'what that was all about.'" Gasped Leland, between ragged breaths. "I'm just as in the dark as you, but your little bundle of joy there is going to provide the light."

††† Leland kicked the still groggy human in the ribs, taking great satisfaction in the hunter's croaked curse.

††† "As a matter of fact, my parents were legally married when I was born." Said Leland. "However my ancestry is not the issue here, I want to know what you and your obviously amateur buddies were trying to pull."

††† "AMATEUR!" The man snarled. "I'm Thag Pierson and I've bagged twenty-seven marks! Don't you dare call me an amateur!"

††† Leland snatched Pierson by the scruff of the neck and pulled his face close to his own. "Look pal, if you don't pipe down and answer my question. The only 'bagging' your going to be doing is taking a tour of the inside of a body bag."

††† "Halasa can you look after Mr. Pierson for a minute?" Interrupted Carek stepping between the two men. "Leland and I need to talk for a moment."

††† "Leland," Said a grim Carek once they had moved out of earshot. "since we haven't had time to find power packs for our comlinks, I'm going to have to try and contact the others through the Force. I know we need answers, but I will not stand for any brutality while I'm occupied. Is that clear?"

††† "Don't worry, I won't do anything to offend your dainty little Jedi sensibilities." Said an equally grim Leland. "You go ahead and work your Jedi magic while I sweat this guy, like I said he's an amateur it won't take much to get him to crack."

††† "I hope your right, I'm getting tired of being clueless."

††† "You and me both."

 

††† Twenty minutes later team Bantha had regrouped aboard the Misplot and were in a heated argument over what Thag the would-be bounty hunter had revealed.

††† "I refuse to believe it." Said Lazarus for the fifth time.

††† "Laz, I don't understand it either," Responded an exasperated Rathbone "but I ran a full chrono check as soon as Leland got back to the ship, what that bounty hunter said checks out. Even though to us we were trapped for only twenty-two hours, somehow two years passed for the rest of the galaxy."

††† "But that just can't be." Lazarus insisted.

††† "Look Laz," Added Leland. "I've re-synchronized our ship's chrono with approach control three times, there's just no way to get around it, two years have passed and in that time the Empire has been cracking down on the Alliance hard. According to Pierson, Dag was arrested a year ago and there's a standing bounty on anyone asking for him."

††† "I can get that last part verified." Said Kyle. "I can check the official Imperial bounty postings."

††† "I think Kyle has an excellent idea," Said Carek, speaking for the first time since the debate began. "besides, keeping busy will take our minds off of recent events. Laz, how much progress on repairing the droids have you managed to complete?"

††† "Uh, I've got them all functioning after a fact."

††† "'After a fact.' What does that mean?" Asked Ardent.

††† "Well, Sam's lower leg servos are still seizing up; Three-emm's graspers only have sixty-seven percent range of motion; and the med droid needs programming, aside from that, they're okay."

††† "How much programming?" Said Carek.

††† "The only thing left is the hardwired core medical functions. That droid doesn't even know its serial number. I'm guessing eighty plus hours of programming to bring it online."

††† "Good work Laz," Said Carek. "keep me updated. Leland, Rathbone, you stay with the ship and the refugees, we may need to boost out of here fast and I want the ship manned and ready."

††† "We'll be ready." Chuckled Leland. "You know how I feel about Tatooine, the best part of the visit is leaving."

††† "That is an attitude, I can concur with wholeheartedly." Kyle added.

††† "Let's get this done."

 

††† "Carek?" Asked Ardent when the rebels were halfway to the regional government office which was where bounties were posted in Mos Eisley.

††† "Yes?"

††† "You've mentioned this 'Dark' and 'Light' side of the Force several times. Does that same concept of good versus evil apply to non-Jedi as well?"

††† "I'm not sure I follow your question."

††† "It seems to me that we have fought for the 'good' side for what seems like centuries and despite all our hard work, 'evil' is just as strong as it ever was, if not stronger. We have willingly stood against evil, even when we had nothing personal to gain. We have all suffered immensely in the defense of the greater good. And we have never wavered in fulfilling our half of the bargain. So then, tell me why, what should be by all indications, such an easy mission is turning into such a impossible quest?"

††† Carek had to pause for several moments before he could answer.

††† "Ardent, I guess if had had the opportunity to finish my training with Master Havsoltek I could answer that question with all the wisdom it deserves. As it is, I can only answer with what my own personal experiences have taught me."

††† "This ought to be good." Said Lazarus.

††† "Shut up!" Kyle responded. "I want to hear this."

††† "I agree that, under normal circumstances, we should have been able to finish this mission without all this extra effort. However, even though we have done more than what the average person, maybe even more than what most people, would do in the service of the greater good, evil also has allies that never take a break.

††† "Our only advantage over Evil is, that Evil can only inspire its minions through fear. Evil rewards success by granting dominion over others. Failure results in being dominated by someone more successful. It is the fear of being dominated that causes the followers of the darker path to be willing to do anything, to both enemy and friend, to avoid that fate. Thus, there can be no trust, as that gives dominion to someone else, without trust there can't be any sharing of goals or true cooperation. There can be alliances, but those can only be temporary or else you risk being dominated, instead of being the dominator.

††† "It is this fear that is Evil's weakness. Evil can only be as strong as the single most dominating person. This individual at the top of the pyramid, by the very nature of how he or she got there, must always spend a large portion of their time and energy guarding their position, for if they falter at any point, they will no longer be the most dominating person. It is my belief that, this lack of cooperation is what gives Good the strength to defeat Evil.

††† "Good, rewards success by sharing whatever bounty there is amongst all. The followers of the path of light, are thus willing to do anything for their comrades, for by doing good, all benefit. Since there is no fear, we can trust and that trust is the backbone that allows us to form a true alliance that is far stronger than anything built on fear. So, I guess it's true that the basic concept of Light and Dark does apply to non-Jedi as well as Jedi. Does that answer your question?"

††† "That was pretty profound for someone who doesn't have the training of a Master." Ardent replied after a moments thought. "I don't know if I agree with you or not, but does give me plenty to think about."

††† "And on a more practical note, it killed the time it took for us to reach the regional office. After you. Oh wise and beneficent Leader." Lazarus added as he opened the door to the dreary building. "Good is stronger than evil, what a load of Rancor fodder. If that were true, the Old Republic never would have collapsed, my family would still be alive, and my shoes wouldn't be full of this delightful Tatooine sand. So, why don't you do me a big favor and space the philosophy so we can get this over with."

††† "As you wish Laz," Said Carek looking thoughtfully at his troubled comrade. "but even if I weren't a Jedi, I can see that blazing anger is choking the life out of you."

††† "At least it keeps me warm at night."

 

††† Inside, the dreary building was occupied by a dreary man whose face was set in the perpetual scowl that only a lifetime of civil service can produce.

††† "May I help you gentle...ahem...men?" He sneered without even bothering to try and hide his contempt for the group.

††† "I'm a licensed hunter and I'm trying to verify a posting." Kyle sneered back not bothering to hide his contempt for the overbearing little bureaucrat.

††† "And which posting is that? Mister...?" Said the clerk retreating from his initial attitude, since it obviously wasn't working.

††† "Just call me a loyal and concerned citizen of the Empire. I'm looking for more info on a Dag Caltare and the standing bounty connected to him."

††† "I see, if you'll just wait a minute while I call up the dormant files from the archive, I'll be able to tell you everything you need to know."

††† There was just something in the way he said that last part that instantly put Kyle on guard. "This guy is stalling!" He thought, lashing out with a blindingly quick strike to the man's nosebridge. The nameless little bureaucrat crumpled to the floor without a sound.

††† "Have you lost your mind!" Snapped Lazarus drawing his blaster and moving to where he could cover the entrance.

††† "He was on to us." Kyle shot back as he grabbed the clerk's datapad and started downloading information as fast as the station's computer would process. "I don't know how, I just know he was stalling us."

††† "Well, is he right Jedi?" This from Lazarus.

††† "I've told you before Laz, there are extreme limits on my ability to read the thoughts of others. I didn't have time to get anything."

††† "Great. The next time remind me to stay and prep the ship and let Rathbone deal with this Jedi nonsense."

††† Just then the building was pierced with an ear-splitting alarm and an automatic voice recording blared out from the computer's speaker.

††† "UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY DETECTED! SYSTEM LOCK DOWN INITIATED. LOCAL AUTHORITIES CONTACTED!"

††† "Kyle, what did you do?" Asked Ardent from where he was trying to get the rear door unlocked.

††† "Tripped a watchdog program." Said Kyle sheepishly. "I'm not sure how much data I got."

††† "Tell us something we don't know." Said Lazarus. "Half the bloody city knows you tripped an alarm. Can't you shut that infernal racket off?"

††† Kyle drew his blaster and silenced the alarm with one well placed bolt. "Are you happy now laughing boy?"

††† "I'll deal with you later." Said Lazarus to Kyle, to the rest of the group he said. "We got company. Four speeder bikes, local police. I'll take the two on the left."

††† "Wait. If they're only locals, we should be able to bluff our way out." Said Carek.

††† "Whatever." Lazarus responded tersely. "Just remember, I got the two on the left."

††† The four officers entered with weapons drawn. As Carek moved forward, he found all four weapons pointed at him. Undaunted the Jedi apprentice continued on with his plan.

††† "Freeze where you are! You're under arrest!" Barked the lead officer. "And don't any of you others try anything either."

††† "Officer, I guess central screwed up again and failed to notify the watch sergeant that we would be testing the system today." Said Carek, careful not to make any sudden moves.

††† "That was no test. You're all under arrest. We'll straighten this out at..."

††† The officer never finished his sentence, as first Lazarus and then the rest of the team opened fire. The local police just weren't prepared to handle the level of resistance that an Alliance special operations team was able to dish out. Despite being on guard and having their weapons already drawn, none of them managed even a single shot before they all fell stunned.

††† "Good shooting guys," Said Carek as he headed for the front door with the team close on his heels. "they sure weren't buying my story."

††† "You got that right." Laughed Ardent. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, but that Jedi code of yours makes you stink as a con man. On the other hand, your lack of fast talking ability did induce them to provide us with transportation." He said indicating the speeder bikes.

††† "By all means." Carek said with a chagrined look on his face. "I have no problem with adapting to what providence has provided."

 

††† The Misplot lifted less than three minutes later, leaving a highly incensed departure control to deal with her unscheduled and, by now, highly unauthorized violation of Tatooine's airspace. Again the local police was too slow in reacting to the rebels and took too long to contact Imperial forces allowing the Misplot to jump to hyperspace without being intercepted.

††† The rebels had had to depart without any real destination in mind and ended up choosing the site of the destruction of the first Death Star, the moon of Yavin as a rally point, since it was known that the system had been abandoned after that momentous event and was unlikely to be monitored.

††† Lazarus sat down with the ship's main computer and began the laborious task of reprogramming the med droid. It took seventy-three hours to bring the med droid, now know as 2-1-B-TED, back to full sentience.

††† TED's certification test was replacing Rathbone's shattered fingers with bionics. Rathbone was not happy being the test subject, but that opinion changed once Two-onebee-Ted successfully built him a fully functional set of fingers.

††† Once the anesthesia wore off, Rathbone put Sam, Three-Emm and his new fingers to use to decode the partial data dump retrieved from the computer on Tatooine. It took the engineer and the two droids slightly over twelve hours to break to code and read the information they had captured.

††† The news recovered was not good. The Alliance had been driven from a frozen planet called Hoth in full retreat and had gone even deeper into hiding. And to make matters worse, Captain Han Solo, one of the heroes of Yavin had been captured by a bounty hunter working for Jabba the Hutt.

††† The only bit of information that was of any use to team Bantha, was the name of the prison that Dag Caltare had been sent to: Rezick's Loft. Ardent was all too familiar with the name, as it was where he had been taken after being captured at Cypryn.

††† After spending two days orbiting Yavin the rebels had finally decided on a course of action.

††† "So it is agreed then?" Carek asked the assembled team and refugees.

††† The group nodded their assent without comment. All debate had taken place during the time they had been orbiting Yavin.

††† "Okay then, flight crew prepare for hyperspace."

††† The rebels would return to base station Heracles to try and find a safe haven at their old base for the refugees, once the refugees were secure, they would then go to Rezick's Loft to free Dag Caltare. It was hoped that once Caltare was freed, he would have some way of recontacting the Alliance. It was thin, but it was the best plan that all could agree on.

††† The flight time to Heracles was forty-two hours in the Misplot, and with the tension onboard, it was going to seem much longer.

 

††† "Heracles approach control this is the independent scout Misplot requesting permission to dock." Said Leland. "It's been a long time since we've been here. Are Shrellian drum fruits still in season?"

††† Leland turned to face Carek. "You know this is not going to work, that recognition code is more than two years old now. No one is even going to remember it, let alone approve it."

††† "Base station Heracles to Misplot..." The speaker finally squawked.

††† "Here it comes." Said Leland.

††† "Give it a chance." Was Carek's response.

††† "I don't know anything about drum fruits," The tired voice continued. "but you are ordered to assume orbit at Lagrange point three, pending inspection of your ship."

††† "Understood. Has there been any sign of those repo specialists that were working this area?" Leland added in desperation.

††† This time there was a long pause before approach control answered, and when they did it was a different voice.

††† "Independent scout Misplot, are you returning from the Corporate Sector?"

††† "That's the response!" Exclaimed Carek and Leland simultaneously.

††† Leland toggled the microphone. "Negative. We're just passing through and needed to get our phase inducers adjusted."

††† "Roger Misplot. You are clear through to docking ring D."

††† "Aye aye Heracles, see you in five. Misplot out."

††† Halasa growled to Leland.

††† "Yeah, I recognize the voice too. I just don't remember the name that goes with it."

††† "Ra'gnayrr." Said Ardent entering the cockpit. "He's the Quarren that took over after the Alliance pulled out the last time we got separated."

††† "Right." Said Leland snapping his fingers. "I never could pronounce that name right. So, do you think we're still welcome?"

††† "That, my friend is the sixty-four thousand credit question." Responded Ardent.

 

††† When the boarding ramp of the Misplot lowered, Ra'gnayrr was waiting to meet them.

††† "Greetings, my long lost friends." Said the Quarren. "I had figured you all had made the final jump, when word reached me that you were missing and presumed dead two years ago."

††† "The story is longer than you would want to hear and longer than we really have time to spare." Said Leland leading the team and the refugees down the ramp.

††† "It's still a story I would like to hear later when you do have the time." Said Ra'gnayrr looking the eclectic group over. "How can I help you now?"

††† "Hello Ra'gnayrr," Said Carek bowing at the waist with his arms crossed across his chest in the way of the Quarren. "to get to the point, we have five political refugees in need of asylum. Our original destination was compromised by the time we got there."

††† "Two years late." Ardent interjected.

††† "We were unable to deliver them to an alternate location," Carek continued with a glare at his comrade. "as we have again lost contact with the Alliance. We have a plan to regain contact, but it will require going further into harm's way than I am willing to risk with them with us, so we would be greatly in your debt, if they could stay here until we return."

††† "It isn't going to take two years is it?" Asked Ra'gnayrr.

††† "Before this mission started I would have said of course not," Carek replied. "but at this point, I can only promise to return as soon as we can."

††† "Fair enough, not only can I can put your friends up, I can return something you left here so long ago."

††† "The Carthesian Hawk is still here?" Exclaimed Rathbone.

††† "Yes my friend, still here and I might add that she's in better shape than your 'Misplot' here."

††† "Carek, we can sell the scout, then we can use the money to pay for the refugees, buy a cover cargo, and refit the 'Hawk." Rathbone said excitedly. "We can transfer the laser cannon from the scout to augment the Hawk's firepower, we can..."

††† "Slow down Rath, we don't want you to getting too far ahead of yourself," Leland laughed. "Ra'gnayrr, is what Rathbone suggested within your powers to make happen?"

††† "As base administrator, I have pretty wide latitude." Responded Ra'gnayrr. "I can arrange everything."

††† "Thank you once again. I don't know what we would do without you." Said Carek.

††† "You haven't seen the bill yet."

††† It took the rebels two days to get the Carthesian Hawk fully ready for the mission ahead. The majority of that time was integrating the laser turret from the Misplot into the Hawk's power grid and then reprogramming the fire control computer to handle the added load.

††† The refugees were assigned fake IDs and set up in a little used sector of the station. None of the refugees were happy with the arrangements, but all understood just how dangerous rescuing someone from an Imperial prison would be and except for a few grumbles from Philst, they all moved into their new quarters quietly.

††† The rebels made their goodbyes and jumped for the Dorthandis system and their rendezvous with Rezick's Loft.


Chapter Sixteen

 

 

 

††† "This is free trader Carthesian Hawk to Rezick's Loft approach control, requesting landing permission. Over." Said Leland in what he hoped was a neutral tone of voice to the microphone, to Halasa he said. "You know this is never going to work."

††† Halasa whuffed out a short growl.

††† "No. I don't have a better idea."

††† There was a fairly long pause before there was a response and when the it came it was not in the usual no nonsense manner that was typical of an Imperial installation.

††† "Uh, whatever Hawk...you're cleared to...uh land. Just follow the beacon and park it where ever you can. Uh...over."

††† "What was that all about?" Said Carek from where he was sitting at astrogation. "Are we in the right place?"

††† "You're the one at astrogation. You tell me." Leland replied.

††† "Sounds like a trap to me." Said Ardent over the intercom from the newly installed ventral turret.

††† "I disagree," Said Kyle from the dorsal turret. "a trap would have sounded perfect, to lure us in, not that pathetic transmission we just heard."

††† "I have to agree with Kyle." Said Leland. "A con job would have been smooth as synthsilk. What do you say Carek?"

††† "I think Kyle is right on target. Leland take us in."

 

††† The rebels followed their instructions and parked in the first docking bay they could find, all the time expecting the worst, but not meeting with any trouble. The landing area consisted of a dozen docking bays, four occupied by TIE fighters, in a huge hanger and an administration building. There was also a landing platform just large enough for a single landspeeder or cloud car off to one side, that was the only means of reaching the actual prison two kilometers away.

††† The customs inspectors were every bit as cursory and half-hearted as approach control had been. After a quick check of their cargo with a weapons scanner and an admonishment not to even think of exiting the ship with a weapon, the psuedo-traders were given free reign of the landing area.

††† Dumfounded by the lack of security, the rebels pressed on with their plan. Leland and Lazarus would sell the cover cargo, while Carek and Kyle, led by Ardent would try to find Dag.

††† Entering the prison's information center the three rebels found the guard missing. On the desk they found a poorly scrawled note stating that the guard was "out to lunch" and would be back by 1330 hours.

††† "Well it's 1500 local time." Said Carek taking a quick look at his chronometer. "It looks like we have us a window of opportunity. Get cracking Kyle."

††† "Here, let me." Said Ardent slipping behind the computer console before Kyle could respond.

††† "But Ardent." Began Kyle.

††† "But nothing. I was held here for three weeks and when they weren't torturing me, I used every scrap of time I could scrounge to figure a way out of here. When that Imperial captain sprung Rex and me, I got a chance to see the passwords he used. I can get the info you want without you having to risk breaking into the system."

††† "What makes you so sure that they haven't changed the passwords." Said Kyle.

††† "He told me that during the two years he worked here, he had time to slice his way into the system and leave a transparent backdoor slicer code that no one knows about."

††† "Okay Ardent, go ahead." Said Kyle stepping back from the console. "But if you trip an alarm, I swear that if I'm alive to see it, I will break every bone in your body one bone at a time."

††† "Anytime you want to go one on one with me you're welcome to try, but you better bring a lunch. I'm telling you, this is a sure thing."

††† Ardent punched in the slicer code and allowed it to work it's digital magic, there was a pause, then the prison's main computer burst to life.

††† "I told you it would work." Said Ardent smugly. "Now what's the plan?"

††† "First find Dag." Replied Carek. "by the time you've found him, I should have a plan."

††† Ardent began stepping through the computer's menus and in less than a minute he had discovered what he was looking for.

††† "Got him! D ring. Block six. Cell one fifty-seven. Now, tell me this brilliant plan." Said Ardent with undisguised sarcasm.

††† "Can you alter a release date?" Asked Carek.

††† "With this code I can cause the reactor core to self destruct."

††† "Hopefully that won't be necessary. I want to do this a quiet as possible."

††† Ardent tapped in a few commands.

††† "When do you want him free?"

††† "Tomorrow at 0800."

††† He typed in a few more commands.

††† "Done. Now what?"

††† "Okay, shut it down."

††† "What! We have full access. We can..."

††† "I know what we have the potential to do, but if we push our luck too far, we won't do anyone any favors if we end up in a cell ourselves. Now shut it down." Said Carek steel edging his voice.

††† "This had better be one hell of a plan."

††† Ardent logged out of the system and the rebels returned to their ship without incident. Leland and Lazarus had already unloaded their cover cargo leaving the rebels with no real reason to stay at the prison. Which, for a change, was picked up on by the guards fairly quickly and for the first time since arriving at the prison, the rebels found someone was telling them that they had to do something, and that something was to leave. True to form Leland slipped the concerned individual a few credits and permission to remain over night was granted until 1000 hours in the morning.

 

††† The following morning, 0800 hours came and went with no sign of Dag.

††† "Your plan stinks." Said a thoroughly disgusted Ardent.

††† "You're the one who said they had full access to the system." Carek shot back.

††† "Why don't you explain, since you know so much, why Dag hasn't been released since a valid release order has been issued and logged by your precious system?"

††† "I find myself in the unusual position of peace keeper," Interrupted Kyle. "but why the plan failed isn't what's important here. The issue at hand is how do we free Dag in..." Kyle glanced at his chronometer. "one hour and forty-two minutes?"

††† "You're absolutely right Kyle." Carek replied shaking his head. "I'm sorry Ardent, I allowed myself to get a little frustrated there."

††† "No problem Carek. I guess being back at Rezick's Loft has just got me on edge. However, I do have a plan."

††† "Times a wastin' man, spit it out." Said Kyle.

††† "I know the prison lay out like a Jervan musk wolf knows his own den, if we can capture the prison access cloud car without an alarm, I can get to D ring, grab Dag and we can boost."

††† "Simple yet elegant." Kyle replied.

††† "Well, it's not as reckless as one of your usual plans and we just don't have time for a debate, so may the Force be with you."

††† "Just have the ship ready to go when I get back."

††† "Wait a minute. You don't think you're going by yourself do you?" Said Kyle.

††† "Yes I am."

††† "In a rancor's eye you will. You have no way of knowing if anything has changed or what condition Dag is in and I don't care how well you know this place, someone has got to watch your back and that someone is me."

††† "I can..." Ardent began.

††† "No Ardent, Kyle is right. Either you both go, or we have to come up with a different plan."

††† "Well what are you waiting for?" Said Ardent moving out for the cloud car platform.

 

††† Less than two minutes later Kyle was at the controls of the cloud car and Ardent was pulling on the now unconscious driver's uniform. Taking the car had been simplicity in itself. The landing area guards were far too complacent from prisoners being forbidden in the landing area and the simple fact that no one ever tried to break into an Imperial prison. Kyle and Ardent approached the cloud car from opposite sides, Kyle then stepped into the open to draw the man's attention, then Ardent sprang up from behind and knocked him out with a spanner.

 

††† As the cloud car lifted from the platform, the rebels aboard the Carthesian Hawk were completing their power up sequences. Leland and Halasa had taken over as gunners, while Carek and Lazarus took over as flight crew. Rathbone and Three-Emm were in their usual place in engineering. When the call came, the ship would be ready.

 

††† "How many guards?" Asked Kyle as they neared the landing platform of the prison proper.

††† "Always three. Stay in the car, I'll try and bluff them."

††† "Fat chance of that. When it comes to it I'll start from the right and meet you in the middle."

††† Kyle landed and Ardent hopped out.

††† "Hey there. I got orders here for a prisoner release. It's thirty minutes overdue, guy named Caltare in D ring."

††† "Release?" The sergeant laughed and made a quick gesture to his partners.

††† "Just who, are you?" The sergeant stopped laughing and the guards went for their blasters. "No one is released from D ring."

††† Ardent rolled to the left just barely evading the sergeant's fire and drew his own blaster. Ardent, driven by the rage he had held in check since his capture, whipped out from where he had taken cover with blinding speed and put a shot square in the chest of the sergeant before the man could even realize he was in danger.

††† Kyle, as promised, fired at the right most guard just as the man fired, which caused the man's shot to go wild and blow out the overhead glow panel. The remaining guard was shot by Ardent as he tried to flank Kyle.

††† "So much for bluffing." Said Kyle turning towards the now furiously beeping intercom. "What next?"

††† "Guard post one respond!"

††† "I've got everything under control." Ardent answered as he moved to respond. "Guard post one."

††† "What in the million worlds is going on up there? I heard blaster fire."

††† "Uh sorry sir, the new guy had an accidental weapons discharge andjust found out what happens when you fire on a magnetic seal. He's just earned himself ninety days of P and P."

††† "Make it six months, and if anything else goes wrong you'll earn sixty days restriction to quarters."

††† "Yes sir. Guard post one out."

††† "What is P and P?" Asked Kyle when he found that he could breathe again.

††† "Pots and Pans. The local jargon for manual kitchen duty. It's the worst job on this rock."

††† "I'll take your word for it. While you were talking to laughing boy, I located Dag's cell."

††† "You know the way, you take point."

††† "Let's move."

††† Kyle led them into the turbo shaft that took them down to D ring and over to block six. When the doors opened, the two rebels found the way blocked by a gleaming all black interrogation droid.

††† The droid's primary logic array took less than a millisecond to scan through its database and realize that the two humans it faced were not authorized to be on this level. The logic array decided in less than twenty milliseconds total time that the proper course of action was to signal an intruder alert.

††† However when it's optical sensors detected blaster fire, the logic array which was designed to extract information and not intended for the rigors of combat, could not create an emergency evasion subroutine fast enough to prevent the logic array and indeed the whole droid from suffering what the now shattered array would have called a complete system shut down.

††† None of this internal processing was visible to Ardent and Kyle, who simply noted a threat, fired and watched the droid clatter to the ground in pieces.

††† "Cell one five seven is to the right." Said Kyle moving through the wreckage of the droid. "We go through that blast door, then we turn left, Dag's cell will be on the right."

††† "How far?"

††† "About fifty meters. Why?"

††† "You know yourself that the exit is always harder than the entry and I wanted to know how far our fighting retreat would be."

††† "Right. I've still got point."

 

††† When the two men reached cell one five seven, the silence they had been operating in was shattered by an alarm klaxon.

††† "I knew we would have to fight our way out of here." Said Ardent trying to cover both corridors at the same time. "How are you going to get that cell open? We don't have time for anything fancy."

††† There was the distinctive snap-hiss of Kyle igniting the lightsaber Carek captured from the Dark Jedi Maldamon so long ago, working quickly, Kyle cut the lock out of the door.

††† "Well that answered my question." Said Ardent entering the cell. "Come on Dag your ship is ready to leave. Yah Brin Daga!" Ardent recoiled back in horror.

††† Kyle pushed past his comrade and found what had rattled him so badly, their Twi'lek friend was sitting on his bunk with a thousand meter stare.

††† "Ardent you take point." Said Kyle through clenched teeth. "I'll carry Dag. Move out."

 

††† When the alarm klaxon sounded, a squad of guards entered the hanger bay and started advancing on the Carthesian Hawk. Halasa in the lower turret noticed them first and let loose with a long burst of fire that sent them diving for cover. Leland took over, when Halasa shifted his fire to the fighters in the hanger. Leland raked the guards position with withering fire until the last two guards routed from the relentless fire. Leland then added his fire to that of Halasa and the two of them made short work of the four TIE fighters.

 

††† As Kyle exited the cell, a pair of guards appeared. Before Kyle's weapon cleared the holster, Ardent's blaster spoke twice and both guards crumpled.

††† "Nice shooting!" Kyle grunted under the load of the limp Twi'lek.

††† "Can you still shoot carrying Dag?" Ardent said over his shoulder as they turned the corner that lead to the turboshaft.

††† "DOWN!" Kyle roared and Ardent obeyed without hesitation. Kyle put four blaster bolts over Ardent's head and into the two guards that had tried to get the drop on Ardent while his back was turned.

††† "That answered that question." Ardent said sheepishly as he rolled back to his feet.

††† "Keep your eyes forward, point man. I'll guard the rear."

††† "Now don't go getting a big head on me, Kyle."

††† "My head could never compete with that Abondaga melon of yours."

††† Before Ardent could reply, they reached the first of the two blast doors that lead out of block six. Fearing that the alarm would seal the way out, they cautiously approached the security panel. Kyle punched the open sequence and the door snapped open.

††† The security droid that was waiting on the other side of the door, opened fire just as soon as it obtained a target lock, but the targets were just as ready and were motivated to a fever pitch that only a living being can feel when a friend has been hurt. The droid never really had a chance and was left a smoking ruin.

††† There was another security droid behind the second blast door, but it faired no better against the two rebels. What had been done to Dag had touched them with the kind of rage that focuses a person into a foe of terrifying lethality that the security droids were just not designed to handle.

††† When the rebels reached the turboshaft, they found that the alarm had shut down power to all turboshafts. Undaunted the two men began climbing the four flights of stairs to the cloud car landing. Enroute they were set upon by two more droids and both of them fell before the killing rage of Ardent and Kyle. One on B level, the last just as they reached the cloud car.

††† They met no further resistance. Kyle gently put Dag into the rear seat, then when Kyle slid into the pilot's seat, Ardent jumped in and sealed the canopy. Kyle lifted and made for the Hawk at best speed.

 

††† Carek caught the main docking bay door's movement from the corner of his eye. Hearing the hydraulics of the large door would have been impossible, the firestorm from Leland and Halasa had stopped, but the secondary explosions from the destroyed fighters were still reverberating through the docking area. From his vantage point in the Hawk's cockpit, Carek could see across the docking bay to the control booth of departure control. And for the first time since they arrived, Carek could see that the booth was manned.

††† "Departure control this is the free trader Carthesian Hawk. It would be in your best interest to keep the bay door open." The doors continued to close. "Departure control. OPEN THE DOOR NOW!"

 

††† "Carthesian Hawk, you've got a lot of nerve trying to tell us what to do." The comlink responded. "What makes you think you give the orders around here? Power your weapons down and prepare for boarding."

††† By the time departure control stopped talking, the docking bay doors had closed.

††† "Departure control. If you don't open the doors now, the two turrets that are locked in on you will blast you to ribbons. This is your last chance."

††† "Carthesian Hawk, this is your last warn..."

††† "Fire."

††† The two turrets fired as close to simultaneously as two non-fire linked guns could manage, and the effect was incredible. The departure control booth first imploded as it tried to absorb the excess energy, then exploded when it failed to do so. When the smoke from the secondary explosions cleared, departure control just didn't exist any more.

††† "Okay guys, new target." Said Carek. "Make a hole. Make it wide."

††† Leland and Halasa unleashed a fearsome fusillade, but this time the target was far more substantial. It took them almost two minutes of combining their fire and pushing both weapons close to thermal shut down, before the stubborn bay doors finally collapsed and blew outwards.

††† Carek had the ship moving before the last of the fragments had finished falling.

 

††† The second the cloud car exited the prison, they were set upon by a pair of TIE fighters.

††† "Try and contact the ship!" Kyle managed to spit out as he rolled the cloud car out of the way of the fighters initial attack.

††† "No need, they're already on the way." Ardent howled triumphantly, then pointed out the right side of the canopy. "Try heading one eight five degrees."

††† Kyle stood the cloud car on its right side and pulled four gees as he took up Ardent's suggested course. As the cloud car rolled out, Kyle finally spotted the Hawk and smiled. "I think I can come up with something special for these jokers."

 

††† "Leland. Halasa. Kyle's in trouble!" Carek shouted as he exited the docking bay and saw the TIE fighters all over the cloud car.

††† "We're on it Carek just get us in range."

 

††† Kyle, still inspired by what had happened to Dag, skillfully evaded the TIEs and kept them so preoccupied, that they never even noticed the Hawk until Ardent and Halasa opened fire. The port ion panel of Halasa's target shredded and the crippled TIE spun away out of the fight. Leland managed to damage his target, but just as he got a firm lock on, his turret seized up and lost power.

††† "RATHBONE!" Leland thundered. "What in the galactic void happened? I had him and now I can't fire."

††† "One of the couplings we modified to work the second turret into the power grid just fried." Rathbone shot back. "I had to vent the charge capacitors to keep the overload from frying you. You might as well come up out of there, because it's going to take me at least two hours to reroute the grid."

††† "We don't have that kind of time!"

††† Leland was absolutely right. In the time it took Rathbone to explain what had happened, the remaining TIE had turned to attack the Hawk. The TIE pilot had had the perverse luck to approach from below, which took it out of Halasa's field of fire, in the split second before the TIE could fire, Carek had to make a difficult decision.

††† "I don't believe I'm doing this." Carek gritted as he pushed forward on the control stick slamming the belly of the Carthesian Hawk down on top of the fighter. There was a violent shudder as the impact bounced the ship up and into the clear. The fighter however, was not so lucky and rebounded from the collision downward into the surface of the planet exploding violently.

††† "Have you lost your bleeding mind?" Leland slurred as he staggered onto the bridge.

††† "What happened to you?" Asked Carek alarmed by his friends appearance.

†† "I was on my way here when you pulled that little bit of insanity. The impact bounced me off the overhead."

††† "I just took a page out of your high impact school of flying, wise guy." Carek retorted. "You've tried to ram everything you've ever flown at one time or another, so don't you dare try and get sanctimonious with me."

††† "I guess that's true enough, old friend. Um...Do you mind if I take over? You're coming along fine as a pilot Carek, but I don't think you're quite ready, and I know the ship isn't ready, for any more tricks from that particular page."

††† Before Carek could respond the intercom crackled.

††† "Bridge. This is engineering." Said Rathbone. "If you're quite through wrecking the ship, Three-emm and I would to try and start putting it back together."

††† Carek moved out from behind the controls and moved to the navigation station. "Go ahead Rath, it should be smooth sailing from here."

††† "Uh, Carek?" Said Leland.

††† "What now Leland?"

††† "I just ran a scan of the system and I've detected a Nebulon-B frigate launching more TIEs."

††† "Time to intercept?"

††† "Well, that's the good news, they're responding to a frantic call from Rezeck's Loft and it looks like the frigate captain blew it and launched too soon. ETA is more that two minutes, that gives you plenty of time to complete the astrogation plot."

††† "Well then, I suggest you stop talking and let me start plotting."

††† "Roger."

††† Leland was again absolutely correct. The frigate captain had come out of hyperspace too far out and then compounded the error by launching his fighters too soon as well. The TIE fighter is renown for it's prodigious speed, but physics are physics and the distance was just too great. The Imperial reinforcements had only closed half the distance between them and the battered freighter, when the Carthesian Hawk gave a flicker of pseudomotion and vanished into hyperspace.

 

††† The frigate captain winced when he saw the escapee's ship enter hyperspace. "There's going to be the devil to pay for this one." Then the captain then shuddered involuntarily when he thought back to what happened to the previous prison commandant when there was a successful escape from Rezick's Loft. "Even though it was an inside job by a traitorous defector, they still stripped him of his rank and put him in his own prison, he hadn't lasted six hours with the general prison population.

††† "Thank the Fates that standard Imperial procedure for entering any system reporting an emergency is to stop at the edge of the system and scan for possible ambushes, which is exactly what I did, so they can't blame me for the escape. I might end up assigned to a mynock infested customs frigate in the most repugnant backwater in the Empire, but at least I won't be sharing a cell with that poor fool down there."

††† The captain turned to his helmsman.

††† "Helm. Standard approach vector." To his comm unit he added. "Keep the TIEs in inverse echelon formation and prepare to launch the assault shuttle. The raiders may have left a few surprises around and I want to be ready."

††† The captain knew that from this point on, he would be blamed for any mistakes made and it was his fervent intention not to do anything that would draw the sector commander's attention and legendary wrath.

††† "No, my dear commandant." The captain mused. "I'm going to follow the book on this one. You're not going to have the pleasure of my company when you meet Lord Vader."

 

††† The Carthesian Hawk was fifteen hours into a hundred and sixty hour trip. Their initial jump had only been two hours in length so that they could change direction to throw off any pursuit the Empire tried to set up based on their escape vector. When the rebels dropped back into realspace they had to decide on a new course of action, their original plan had been, once Dag was free, go to where he said the Alliance was hiding. However, when Dag was found in a vegetative state, the original plan had to go out the airlock. The team argued for two hours then with a lack of any other suitable destination, they decided to return to Yavin.

††† The newly reprogrammed med droid Two onebee Ted, examined Dag and found that a neural inhibitor had been inserted to the Twi'lek's brain. Since Dag was still their best hope to recontact the Alliance, the team had no choice but to trust the droid to perform the delicate extraction surgery. The team had gathered in the Carthesian Hawk's lounge to await the surgery's outcome.

††† "How long?" Asked Lazarus.

††† "Eight hours, fifty-four minutes." Rathbone answered. "I don't think he's going to make it."

††† "They only put neural inhibitors in prisoners they can't break." Said Ardent solemnly. "That bespeaks a strength you'll never know."

††† Rathbone's acid retort died when the med droid entered the lounge.

††† "The patient is resting comfortably, the extraction was successful. He will require at least a week before he regains all of his higher motor functions, but he will fully recover."

††† The exuberance of the team's response was only limited by the dimensions of the size lounge. Carek was the first of the team to break free and follow Two onebee Ted to Dag's cabin.

††† "You friend, are very hard person to get an appointment with." Said Carek.

††† "I...I knew you weren't d-d-dead." Dag managed to croak when he finally found his voice and could see who had spoken.

††† "We seem to have lost our way again do you think you can help us?"

††† "I've been out of circulation for a bit, but considering what I owe you people right now, I'll make it the focus of my existence just as soon as I can keep my eyes in focus."

††† "Fair enough, you rest easy." Carek smiled and turned to exit.

††† "Carek?"

††† "Yes?"

††† "Thank everybody for me."

††† "I will Dag. I will."

††† Carek then dimmed the overhead glow panel and allowed the hatch to close.

††† "I knew if I was going to be rescued, it would be team Bantha that would do it." Dag said wearily as he drifted off to sleep. "The only problem is, considering how badly the Empire had been beating the Alliance recently, would there be anything left to rejoin."

 

††† That was a question that they would all have to find out the hard way.



Chapter Seventeen

 

 

 

††† The brilliant burst of starlines announced the Carthesian Hawk's return to realspace and to the Yavin system. In the Hawk's makeshift sickbay, Dag Caltare had noticed the starlines and began trying to struggle into his clothes. The long trip had given Dag the much needed time to recuperate from the ordeal of his major brain surgery and to regain most of his major motor skills.

††† Dag was nearly beside himself at the prospect of gaining his freedom from the tiny sickbay that he had been confined to by the orders of the med droid Two onebee Ted during the six days since his deliverance from darkness.

††† "Mr. Caltare, you should still be in bed." Said Two onebee Ted. "I haven't given you a clean bill of health yet."

††† "Look Ted, I've taken about as much grief from a droid as I'm going to take," Dag responded not even looking up from his still clumsy efforts to get dressed. "those people all risked their lives to rescue me and now they need my help and no med droid is going to stop me."

††† "Very well," The droid gave the mechanical analog of a sigh. "if you insist, I'll allow you to move from your bed, however you can't remain out of bed for more than a half an hour. The synapses in your frontal lobe still haven't knit sufficiently for you to exert yourself in any way. Until your primary synapses have had a chance to reknit, you're just going to have to accept these limitations. It's going take you at least three more days to fully recover."

††† "Thank you for being so concerned Ted, I do appreciate you saving my life and I will be very careful not to do anything to cause a relapse, but I've got to get to the bridge and help these people get back in contact with the Alliance. You understand that don't you?"

††† "I understand, just please be careful."

††† "Ted, I'm always careful."

 

††† "Well look who finally had enough sleep to be sociable." Said Leland when he saw Dag enter the bridge.

††† "Leland, I'm not really up for any witty repartee just now," Dag replied as he sat heavily at the navigation station. "how about, we try concentrating on rejoining the Alliance instead?"

††† "Sounds like an excellent idea to me." Rathbone said from the co-pilot's seat. "So, where is the Alliance hiding."

††† "Carek briefed me on your encounter with that time dilation sphere, so the first thing I have to remind you is that I was arrested a year ago. You know standard operating procedure when a cell has been penetrated is to sever all communications and escape to the nearest safehouse. All my rebel contacts have gone underground. I will have to try get in touch with some of my personal contacts and see what they can come up with."

††† "Are you telling me that after all the trouble we went through to rescue you," Rathbone gasped his jaw dropping open. "that you don't know where the rebellion is?"

††† "'All the trouble we went through?'" Said Kyle from the entrance to the bridge. "I don't seem to remember seeing you during most of our stay at Rezick's Loft."

††† "You bloody well know I was in engineering putting the final touches on the Hawk's new weapons mount." Rathbone shot back clearly stung by Kyle's comment.

††† "The same new weapon mount that failed the first time it was used, almost getting us killed?" Added Leland enjoying the engineer being on the defensive.

††† "Now that's not fair. I..." Rathbone broke off and turned to face Dag who had begun to laugh with gusto. "What's so bloody funny?"

††† "I...uh...hee hee hee...It's just good to...hee hee...find out that team Bantha hasn't changed at bit."

††† "Well, I'm glad that we amuse you so much. If you'll excuse me, I have things that need my attention in engineering. " Rathbone said as he exited the bridge.

††† "Don't mind him, he's always been a little high strung." Said Kyle taking the co-pilot's seat.

††† "However, his basic gist of 'where to next?' is still valid." Said Lazarus taking Kyle's place at the entrance to the bridge.

††† "Before you answer that Dag, why don't we move to the lounge so we all can have a little room?" Said Leland.

††† "Good idea." Kyle seconded.

††† When team Bantha had gathered in the Hawk's lounge Dag took a deep breath before replying.

††† "I will get straight to the point, I do not know where the rebellion is currently hiding." He said without preamble. "I do however, have a very good friend in the cloud city of Bespin in the Anoat system that should be able to narrow the field of hiding places."

††† Halasa barked a short question.

††† "A little less than two days in this tub." Answered Leland.

††† "How likely is your contact to be willing to help an escaped felon?" Asked Ardent.

††† "Honis is a fellow Twi'lek. And more important than that, he owes me his life five times over. He will help us."

††† "I guess that settles that. Leland plot a course for Bespin." Said Carek, rising from where he was sitting on the deck and heading for the bridge.

††† "Wait a minute Carek. Aren't we going to talk about this at all?" This from Lazarus.

††† "To what end?" Carek replied with uncharacteristic shortness in his voice. "We're short on choices here, Laz. Ardent and Kyle took a tremendous chance when they entered Rezick's Loft to get Dag, a decision that we all agreed on, because we figured that he would have the best chance of hooking us back up with the Alliance. Now Dag has told us where we need to go to accomplish that very goal, what is left to talk about?"

††† "When you put it that way, nothing."

 

††† Dag's hunch about his friend was right on target. Entry to Bespin had been complicated by the presence of an Imperial occupation force, but once the rebels eluded the single patrol ship, Honis had greeted them with open arms and had given them what scant information that he had. Exactly where the Alliance had gone to ground was unknown, however Honis was aware of an interesting piece of information, the Empire had withdrawn from the Kiosk system. That little bit of information excited Dag tremendously, for with that system no longer under Imperial control he now had access to his old friend Arcturus.

††† Arcturus was heavily cyborged from injuries sustained during his gun running days. He had retired from gun running and had become a broker of information based out of Cypryn four. Team Bantha had met him only once, which although it seemed to be an eon ago, was in actuality only six months prior to the destruction of Alderaan. Arcturus had been the go between on a gun running deal aboard the passenger ship the Mystic Lady during that mission so long ago.

††† Dag had flatly stated that if team Bantha wished to rejoin the Alliance, it would be Arcturus that would provide the lead, presented with an a fait accompli, team Bantha had headed for the Kiosk system. The trip to Cypryn had been uneventful and Dag found Arcturus exactly where Honis had said he would be, running the upscale Master of Flasks tapcafe.

††† Arcturus took one look at the eclectic group and ushered them to a private booth.

††† "We can talk here, I've had this booth rigged with voice scramblers for my most discrete customers." Said Arcturus taking a seat.

†† "Arcturus my friend, you've done very well for yourself." Dag said taking in the impressive surroundings.

††† "And so have you, your little stroll from the 'Loft has boosted the bounty on you to twenty thousand creds." Arcturus shifted his view to the others at the table. "Kyle, unfortunately they got a good ID on you, your new bounty is fifteen thousand. The rest of you got off lucky, the bounty is ten thousand for 'the persons' responsible for aiding in the wanton attack on an Imperial 'detainment facility.' I hope you're taking the appropriate precautions."

††† "Well, since our presence here is a threat to you," Said Dag. "I'll get right to the point old friend, we're trying to find out where the rebels have gone into hiding."

††† "You never did know when to leave well enough alone did you? If I were any of you, I would find the nearest black hole and pull it in after me. Instead you want to link up with the most wanted people in the galaxy. I thought I learned you better than that Dag."

††† "Yes you did, but that still doesn't change the question before you."

††† "You're right Dag, a broker's job is to find the answers to questions, he doesn't debate the relative merits of the question. It appears to me that time is a critical factor here, so to be blunt, I don't know where the rebels are hiding."

††† A chorus of groans met that response, but Arcturus continued before anyone could actually say anything.

††† "However, I do happen to have a bit of information that I know the Empire doesn't want to become common knowledge, the star destroyer that was assigned to this system, rendezvoused with a full sector squadron and..."

††† "A sector squadron is six ships!" Blurted Rathbone. "The Imperials almost never form sector squadrons."

††† "Rathbone, let the man finish!" Lazarus hissed.

††† "Thank you my pale young friend. As Lazarus was saying, a sector squadron is almost never formed. What would you say if I told you that my source can confirm that the Imperials are forming a territorial fleet?"

††† "A territorial fleet?" Gasped Carek. "That's twenty-four star destroyers. The last time a fleet that large was formed was during the Clone wars."

††† "Correct." Said Arcturus. "And more importantly, I know where they are headed."

††† "For Diety's sake man spit it out." Leland shouted, too stunned to be tactful.

††† "Endor."

††† "Where in the bleeding suns is Endor?" Said Lazarus.

††† "It's only a days trip from Tatooine. The only problem is the Imps have got the system sewn up tighter than the web of a Caruskan devil spider. I lost a good man finding out that last part." Said Arcturus, his expression turning grim. "My source was able to launch a message probe before being burned down. No questions. No attempt at capture. Just blasted. So, I don't exactly know how you're going to put that information to use."

††† "It just so happens that I have a plan." Said Dag after a few moments of deep concentration. "I'll have to prevail upon you once more, dear friend, then I promise we'll be out of your jump path."

††† "I shudder to ask, but what is this idea?"

††† "Zent Arruke."

††† Arcturus made a living on keeping a sabbac face, but this time the shock was plain for all to see. "Why you betentacled genius! That might just work."

††† "Excuse me, could one of you be so kind as to explain what 'Zent Arruke' means?" Carek asked still reeling from the territorial fleet revelation.

††† "Sorry people," Said Arcturus breaking away from the rampant train of thought that Dag had started. "Zent Arruke is an Imperial ship's graveyard. Most decommissioned Imperial ships are broken up for scrap, but a few are put into storage pending transfer to some wealthy family for use as yacht escorts or sometimes as yachts. I know that there are at least a half a dozen customs frigates at Zent Arruke right now."

††† "What sort of security do they have?" Asked Kyle.

††† "Minimal. The Imps rely the secrecy of the graveyard's location, an occasional patrol, and the fact that the ship's have their power cores

drained. I can get the reactor fuel and meet you at your ship in two hours."

††† "Meet us?" Dag said incredulously. "You're going to get involved personally?"

††† "I owe it to my source to find out what's going on in that backwater that's so important that the Imperials have shoot on sight orders."

††† "Good enough for me." Said Ardent sliding out from the booth. "If we're going to be leaving in two hours we better get crackin'."

††† "Well said." Arcturus replied as he made for his office. "If you'll excuse me gentlemen, I've got a few loose ends to tie up before our rendezvous."

††† "Maybe this time we'll get to keep this frigate." Leland said as he exited the tapcafe.

††† "You'll never get over Arkin not letting you command that customs frigate we captured will you?" Laughed Kyle.

††† "No. No I won't."

 

††† The Carthesian Hawk departed for the Zent Arruke system exactly two hours and five minutes later.

 

††† "It just doesn't seem right, that something so illegal should be so simple." Thought Kyle from the communication's station of the Carthesian Hawk, his mind subconsciously taking note of Leland's exit from hyperspace and skillful insertion into the graveyard's geosynchronous parking orbit of Arruke five. "You know Leland, Arcturus' knowledge of the Imperal's patrol schedule has taken all the challenge out of this." He said to break the boredom.

††† "Stand by to fire those braking thrusters Halasa." Said Leland not taking his eyes off the small dot that was slowly resolving itself into the targeted customs frigate floating three kilometers ahead.

††† Halasa grunted out an question.

††† "My point is...well I..." Kyle stumbled for an answer. "All I know is this is too easy."

††† "I'm a little curious Kyle, what would you have preferred, a company of stormtroopers?" Asked Carek from the navigation station.

††† "No, of course not. I just know that something's not right."

††† There was a muted clang and slight bump as the ships docked.

††† "Well, with twenty plus star destroyers waiting for us, I think that we'll have more than enough excitement for you when we reach the Endor system." Said Leland unbuckling from the pilot's seat. "Come on what are waiting for, an autographed holocrystal from Palpatine himself?"

††† "Lead on hot shot, just don't be surprised when this trip turns out to be more exciting than you thought it would be." Replied Kyle.

 

††† The ex-Imperial customs frigate, hull number four three eight seven six six one nine, had been in mothballs for slightly over four months. Previously to that, it had been attached to the twenty-sixth Imperial customs fleet serving the Empire for more than sixteen years. The ship's name had been obliterated by the impact of micrometeorites from those long years of service, but the menacing potential of the sleek hull was undeminished by the carbon scoring that marred the surface of the once proud warship.

††† The first step of the salvaging process had been for Rathbone, in a vac suit and assisted by Three-emm, to jump start the frigate's life support using a power tap from the Carthesian Hawk. It had taken two tedious hours to recycle enough heat and atmosphere to make the frig-

ate habitable enough for the rebels to begin the serious portion of the refurbishing.

††† In an effort to bring the ship's most critical systems back online in the shortest amount of time, the rebels split into three teams: engineering, weapons, and bridge.

††† Rathbone and Three-emm had returned to engineering and started the slow process of refueling the ship's fusion plant with the fuel that Arcturus had supplied, then moved on to recalibrating the main drive controls.

††† Kyle and Ardent took on the task of restoring power to the weapons systems. Normally when a ship is decommissioned, the weapons mounts are disabled and would require a full repair dock to reinstall, however since the ship's at Zent Arruke were to become the playthings of the wealthy, the weapons had been deactivated by the simple means of removing their primary charge capacitors from the power grid. Reversing this deactivation would take several hours as they had to find and re-link a dozen power couplers on each weapon.

 

††† The majority of the rebels had gone to the bridge, even though it was going to take six hours before the frigate could move on it's own, the fusion plant was providing enough power for the terminals that were needed to re-establish control of the ship's major functions: helm, shields, navigation, sensors, communications and the central computer.

††† "I'm going back to engineering to see how Rath is doing." Said Lazarus after two hours of hard work. "I need to stretch my legs before I go cross-eyed."

††† "I will go with you." Arcturus said stiffly. "I too need a break."

††† "Don't take too long," Leland called from across the bridge. "we all need a break and unless someone has a problem with it, I want to take mine next."

††† "Sure thing Leland," Lazarus replied from where he had stopped to stretch. "I'm only going to check on the reactor and hit the fresher."

††† Arcturus had continued walking when Lazarus had stopped to answer Leland, when Lazarus turned to follow, he found that Arcturus had already moved out of sight.

††† Before Lazarus could comment he heard an odd thumping.

††† "What was that?" He thought to himself as he picked up his pace. "It sounded like it was coming from the midship airlock."

 

††† On the bridge, Carek snapped his head around sharply enough for Dag to notice.

††† "What's wrong?" Dag Asked.

††† "Did you hear that noise?" Carek replied, head cocked to one side.

††† "Actually yes. It was so faint that I thought I was just imagining things." Said Dag.

††† "What noise?" This from Leland who had finally noticed the activity going on behind him.

††† "Quiet for a minute Leland, Halasa did you hear it?"

††† Halasa whuffed a sharp affirmative.

††† Carek was reaching for the ship's intercom when Rathbone's frantic cry came over the shipwide channel.

††† "Intruder alert! Spacetroopers at the portside airlock!"

††† Carek punched the comm unit's over ride. "Hang on Rath, we're on the way!" Carek then vaulted from the raised platform of the bridge proper drawing his lightsaber as he landed. "Halasa. Dag. You try and flank them. Leland follow me."

††† "Lead the way sword slinger."

††† The rebels moved out, expressions grim and weapons ready.

 

††† Kyle had just exited the aft upper laser turret, when he heard Rathbone's warning. "Spacetroopers! Those guys are bad news." He thought as he whipped his blaster from its holster and checked the charge before taking a quick look around the corner that lead to the port airlock. He saw Arcturus standing, unmoving, next to the airlock controls and a pair of lumbering spacetroopers entering the ship.

††† "It looks like it's up to momma's little boy Kyle to slow these guys down." He said wheeling around the corner and pouring bolt after bolt into the massive armored figures. The first two were caught totally off guard and despite their superlative armor, crumpled to the deck in a clatter.

 

††† "Take that! You clanking buffoons!" He shouted triumphantly, however the element of surprise was now gone and the third trooper launched a grenade at the source of the barrage. "HOLY..." Kyle didn't have time to finish the thought, he desperately tried flinging himself to cover, but the trooper had allowed for evasive maneuvers and the blast wave rolled over Kyle, slamming him into the far bulkhead. He lay there fighting the blackness that threatened to enfold him.

 

††† Lazarus approaching from the opposite side, could see into engineering and could also see that Rathbone was feverishly trying to reseal the airlock. Lazarus could also see a pair of spacetroopers trying to clear a path around two the fallen troopers. "Looks like Kyle's work." He said surveying the now crowded corridor. "I've got to reach engineering before they do. And there's only one way to do it." He took a deep breath, then taking advantage of the trooper's distraction, he dodged across the corridor and slid into engineering.

 

††† "Success!" Rathbone shouted at the terminal as he finally got the airlock sealed. There was a heavy grunt behind him, causing the rebel engineer to spin around with blaster drawn, he had nearly fired when he suddenly recognized the source of the sound. "Lazarus Maxenties are you trying to scare me to death!"

††† "Shut up and point that bloody thing at Imperial target, there are enough of them around you know."

††† "Don't I know it." Said Rathbone shifting his point of aim. "I heard noises outside the ship and I just knew it would be spacetroopers, so I pushed the panic button. Do you know who opened the airlock?"

††† "Arcturus." Lazarus spat. "He sold us out."

††† "It's not the first time that's happened and it won't be the last."

††† "As soon as I get a clear shot, it'll be the last time that Arcturus double crosses anyone."

††† "Your shot at Arcturus is going to have to wait, can't you hear the troopers are on the move again!"

††† Lazarus risked a quick peek down the corridor and immediately wished he hadn't. Rathbone was right, the two troopers that Lazarus had seen earlier were indeed on the move and to make matters worse, two more of the juggernaughts had made it through the airlock before Rathbone had managed to get it secured.

††† "Okay Rath, this is where it gets real ugly. Take cover." Said Lazarus as he too moved to the best cover he could find. "Not that there's any cover that can stand up to the firepower these guys are packing." He added silently.

 

††† "Kyle!" Leland shouted when he saw his friend struggling back to his feet. "Has engineering been taken?"

††† "N-N-Not yet." Kyle slurred. "Any s-second though."

††† "Not if I have any say in the matter, you two watch my back." Carek yelled back over his shoulder just as he leapt around the corner and charged the Imperial shocktroops.

††† The spacetroopers were just not accustomed to being charged and that made them hesitate, even though their training allowed them to recover in less than a second, the damage had been done. Carek felt the Force flowing through him and in that split second that the Imperials hesitated, Carek's lightsaber felled two of the troopers and wounded another. Leland and Kyle added in a fusillade of blaster bolts to Carek's onslaught and the two remaining troopers, already disoriented by the fury of the Jedi's attack, folded to the deck, overwhelmed by the two phase assault.

††† "Now for you." Kyle said holstering his blaster and turning to face Arcturus, who was still standing woodenly in front of the airlock controls. "I'm going to break every bone in your body."

††† Arcturus slowly began to draw his blaster, but he never even came to close to finishing the motion. A blaster bolt threw him against the bulkhead leaving his chest a smoking ruin before his weapon was even clear of its holster.

††† "Lazarus! Explain yourself." Carek said quietly.

††† "He betrayed us, he was the one who opened the airlock. I saw him do it!"

††† "Good enough for now, but we will talk later." Carek responded after a full five second pause.

††† "Sooner. Later. What's the difference. And by the way, what took you so flaming long?" Lazarus snarled in reply.

††† The sound of a furious exchange of blaster fire, punctuated by the higher pitched discharge of a bowcaster, interrupted the growing confrontation.

††† "That came from the cargo bay!" Rathbone shouted to make himself heard above the din. "Carek, can you handle them without me?"

††† "Why?"

††† "I've got to see if there's any chance of getting this relic moving with the power that's available now."

††† "Good idea Rath, run with it. Kyle you take point."

††† "Fan out!" Said Kyle. "Those guys are packing concussion grenades and believe me, you don't want to know what one of them feels like. I only caught the edge of one's blast and it knocked me loopy."

††† "You heard the man. Let's move." Carek added as he moved to join Kyle on point.

 

††† The sounds of blaster fire ceased abruptly and were replaced by the rapid tattoo of someone running for their life. Clued by the speed and lightness of the approaching footsteps, the rebels held their fire, as first Dag and then Halasa raced into view."

††† "Spacetroopers in the cargo bay! At least a dozen. We tried to hold them, but there were just too many of them." Dag said breathlessly. Halasa nodding his agreement.

††† "A dozen!" Leland exclaimed. "We can't fight that many with these little pop guns we're packing."

††† "That's where you're wrong, Leland," Carek replied taking a deep breath to clear his mind to tap into the Force and the boundless energy that was available there. "As long as I can count on you, Dag, and Halasa to provide cover fire, I'm certain that Kyle, Lazarus, and I can take care of the Imperials. Are you with me?"

††† "I'm probably going to be sorry I said this, but let's get this done, before I change my mind."

††† "We'll make a soldier out of you yet."

††† "That's the one thing that truly scares me. That, and where in the blazes Ardent has gotten himself to."

 

††† "He was working on the forward upper turret. We should have heard from him by now." Kyle responded. "It's not like him to miss a chance to kill Imperials."

††† "We don't have time for that," Said Lazarus. "Here come the spacetroopers!"

††† Since Carek had been denied completing his training as a Jedi, his abilities with the Force were severely hampered. However there were times, usually during the time of greatest threat to his friends, that he felt as if the very soul of the galaxy were at his command.

††† When Carek saw the slow moving leviathans, he simply let the soul of the galaxy guild him through the task of stopping the Imperials. From his friends point of view, Carek became a blur of motion and when he stopped moving, five of the spacetroopers were down and another was wounded.

††† Kyle was also aware of the threat posed by a dozen spacetroopers and unknowingly, he too reached out to the Force to help him stop their attack. Kyle would forever be unable to explain how he did it, but he somehow, for a brief few seconds, was able to sense Carek's movements. Guided by a force he didn't fully understand, he fired his blaster in perfect counterpoint to Carek's attack and placed exquisitely aimed blaster bolts into the remaining six Imperials. The troopers were so completely unprepared for the rebel's deadly assault, that four more, of what were supposed to be the Empires finest soldiers, fell before Kyle's fire.

††† The armor of a spacetrooper was indeed the finest that the Empire could produce, and that fact allowed two of them to survive Kyle's deadly marksmanship. One of them was too stunned to react, but the last trooper managed to trigger off a poorly aimed concussion grenade that even though it burst wide of Kyle, it's intended target, it succeeded in stunning Lazarus and Halasa.

††† Carek's return swing cleanly bisected the only trooper to survive his initial attack. He was about to congratulate Kyle, when he suddenly sensed something very wrong in the Force. He turned slowly and from the corner of his eye, he saw Kyle finishing off the last two troopers, but what held the center of his attention was the fact that Ardent had finally shown up and the look on Ardent's face.

††† Before anyone in the cargo bay could speak, two things occurred almost simultaneously. First, Rathbone's voice crackled over the intercom. "Engineering report. Insufficient power on hand to break orbit, or to charge weapons. Recommendation: abandon ship!" Second, Ardent opened fire on Lazarus.

††† Lazarus was too shocked to react and took the stun bolt full on, he staggered back, but managed to keep his feet. Halasa avoided the same fate only by being strong enough to shrug off the attack.

††† "He's under some form of mind control. Stun him!" Carek said as he activated his comlink. "Rathbone, get the Hawk ready for departure. We'll be there in thirty seconds."

††† "On the way!" Rathbone answered then broke the connection.

††† Ardent stood blocking the exit with a blaster in each hand. As Kyle and Leland reset their weapons to stun, Ardent fired and hit Leland with a stun bolt from the heavy blaster pistol in his right hand. Leland emitted a startled yelp, then folded over and fell to the deck. Kyle returned fire, but Ardent just ignored the hit.

 

††† "I don't know who's controlling him, but we've got to get out of here!" Thought Carek as he tried using the Force to pull away Ardent's weapons. Ardent managed to hang onto his weapons, but the struggle prevented him from firing. Kyle took full advantage of the distraction and hit Ardent with a flurry of bolts, which finally had the desired effect of knocking Ardent out.

††† Halasa grunted a suggestion.

††† "Good idea Halasa. You better get going now," Said Carek. "Rathbone will need help on the Hawk and with Leland out, you're the best we have."

††† Halasa bounded out of the cargo bay at full speed.

††† "What got into him?" Said Kyle as he disarmed Ardent.

††† "I would guess the same thing that got into Arcturus." Carek replied with a grim expression aimed at Lazarus.

††† "I didn't know." Lazarus whispered from where he had grabbed Leland, unable to meet Carek's eye.

††† "Well, now you do. I've always told you that your anger would be your downfall Laz, I hope this has taught you something."

††† "Yes it has." Lazarus replied his voice choked with emotion.

††† "Then let's get moving."

 

††† When Halasa turned down the corridor that lead to the Hawk, he found Rathbone walking toward the cargo bay.

††† "The Imperials beat us to her, they've exposed her to vacuum." Said the heartbroken engineer. "We're trapped."

††† Halasa bared his fangs and roared his fiercest battle cry.

††† "That's all well and good that you feel that way, but the fact is this time they've won."

††† The rest of team Bantha raced into view, stopping short when they caught sight of their fellow rebels standing forlorn in the corridor.

††† "What gives Rath?" Said Leland still a little shaken from being revived by Carek.

††† "The Hawk is in hard vacuum."

††† "Burning stars, this just keeps getting worse!" Kyle exclaimed.

††† "Quick to the bridge. We've got to see what we're up against." Carek said reversing course, the rest of the rebels in pursuit. "And you're certain we can't get this ship moving? What about escape pods?"

††† "There is no way to get this ship moving in less than five hours." Rathbone said glumly.

††† "Escape pods are no good either, Zent Arruke five is uninhabitable." Said Dag. "I guess I'm going back to Rezick's Loft."

††† "WE ARE NOT GOING TO SURRENDER!" Exploded Leland. "We've managed to find a way out of every jam we've ever been in and this time is no different."

††† "Yes it is my friends." A deep resonant voice said amicably.

††† The rebels whirled to face the sound and found the way to the bridge blocked by a pair of spacetroopers flanking a man dressed in a black form fitting suit, grey gloves and boots, and a helmet that completely obscured his face. "I have pursued you for a very long time and this time, there is no escape."

††† Lazarus reacted in the only way he knew how, he drew his blaster and began hammering both of the spacetroopers with a flurry of well aimed blaster bolts. Halasa lunged forward at the man in black, howling a fearsome Wookiee battle cry that chilled the soul of all who heard it.

††† The man in black, however had seen and done things that would terrify a rancor and was unfazed by the on rushing Wookiee. He simply pointed at the raging wall of fur and waved his hand as if he were shooing a fly, the seemingly innocuous motion caused Halasa to not only come to a bone jarring halt, but to slam backward into the bulkhead hard enough to be wounded.

††† The man in black then turned his attention to Lazarus who had managed to wound both of his escorting spacetroopers, he spread his fingers as if he were clutching a fist sized sphere, then closed his fingers into a ball. Lazarus was caught halfway through shifting targets, when the bones of his forearm snapped with resounding crack, both radius and ulna piercing his flesh. The agony of the injury overwhelmed Lazarus sending him to the deck and into the blissfully painless realm of unconsciousness.

††† "Cover me!" Carek yelled to Kyle as he ignited his lightsaber and charged the Imperials.

††† Kyle could only get off one shot in the time it took Carek to close. The bolt hit man in black dead center of his chest, but instead of the usually fatal effect, the bolt just faded away as it hit.

††† Carek's attack slashed through all three man in one sweeping stroke. The two spacetroopers crumpled mortally wounded, but just as Kyle's blaster bolt, the man in black just faded away.

††† "What in the burning stars?" Kyle blurted, clearly shocked by the dark Jedi's disappearance. "Where did he go?"

††† "Doppleganger!" Carek hissed as he recognized the dark Jedi's trick. "Quick Leland, Dag, get Laz. We've got to get to the bridge before he really boards us."

††† The team reached the bridge and Halasa ran a quick sensor sweep, but that only confirmed what the rebels could clearly see through the view ports, a pair two Nebulon-B frigates were less than a kilometer away and both had their forward turbolasers pointed at the helpless customs ship.

††† The communications panel then blared to life with the image of the man in black. "I am Lord Ky Vacendik. And in the name of Emperor, I order you to surrender."

††† "Never! You twisted sideshow freak!" Leland raged back.

††† "Hmmm. I guess you don't understand just how helpless your position is. Allow me to demonstrate." Vacendik motioned to the frigate's captain and the lead frigate fired one of it's turbolasers. The customs frigate rocked violently and the bridge's emergency lighting flickered to life, casting eerie red shadows on the already unreal scene.

††† Halasa whuffed out a series of sharp growls.

††† "Close all bulkheads!" Rathbone snapped, instantly joining Halasa at the console. "That last shot ruptured engineering! Carek, where I come from there's no shame in surrendering when the situation is hopeless."

††† "I would listen to your friend, young Jedi. I will give you ten seconds to turn your lightsaber over to my emissary." Said Vacendik, waving his hand casually and causing Ardent to regain consciousness.

††† "NO! Carek, don't do it." Said Leland. "We can get out of this!"

††† Carek looked from the team to the viewscreen and back to the team.

††† "I'm sorry everyone." He said at last, his shoulders slumping. "I just don't see any way out of this one." Turning to face the viewer he pulled himself up to his full height. "Lord Vacendik. As commander of team Bantha, I formally surrender and request proper treatment as prisoners of war." Carek then handed his lightsaber over to Ardent.

††† "I WILL NOT SURRENDER!" Leland thundered. "It will take a lot more than a crippled ship to get me to give up. What's the matter with all of you? Have you been baby sitting so long that you've forgotten how to fight?"

††† "Leland please don't make this any harder than it has to be." Said Carek gently. "I've already surrendered, don't make make me have you restrained."

††† "Just because I go along with this captain, sergeant, colonel nonsense, don't think that you have a right to speak for me."

††† "Kyle." Carek spoke so softly that the bounty hunter almost didn't hear it.

††† "I'm sorry Leland," Said Kyle as he drew his blaster. "I really am."

††† Leland saw the motion and tried to dive out of the way, but Kyle's stun bolt took him down before he could even finish his second step.


 

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

 

††† The rebels processing was accomplished with standard Imperial efficiency. First the spacetroopers assault shuttle docked with the customs frigate, then with a heavy overwatch, the rebels were searched, cuffed, and forced aboard the shuttle.

††† The flight to Vacendik's frigate took less than two minutes. Still under heavy guard, they were led down the shuttle's loading ramp. When they entered the docking bay, Lord Vacendik was waiting and for the first time he was not wearing his helmet. He seemed to be around forty with shoulder length blonde hair. He had aristocratic features and would have been considered a handsome man, if not for the sneer that twisted his features and set permanent furrows around his cruel brown eyes.

††† He looked them up and down, his sneer somehow getting deeper before he spoke. "I have long awaited this moment, team Bantha is at last in my grasp. You will get the chance to tell me where you have been hiding for the last two years during your interrogations. I used every means at my disposal to locate you after you fled Delfarra and had absolutely no luck. Even your own headquarters didnít know where you were. So you canít imagine how much pleasure I took when reports came in first, from Tatooine and then, Rezickís Loft that the long lost Team Bantha had resurfaced. I commandeered the first ship I could get my hands on when my operative Arcturus reported that you were on your way here so I could be present for our chance to finally meet face to face." His thin smile was cold as it swept over them. "You'll find that the rebellion has a tremendous surprise waiting for them when they reach the Endor system and you will be there to witness their complete and final destruction." Vacendik then turned to leave. "Captain, get us under way immediately. I will begin in an hour."

††† "Yes my Lord."

 

††† The rebels, except for Ardent, were searched again and then placed in separate featureless rooms. Ardent was last seen heading aft in the company of the ship's captain. Exactly an hour later, Vacendik began his interrogations.

 

††† "I don't understand," Said Kyle from the cell the rebels had occupied in the hours since the interrogations ended. "I don't pretend to know what an Imperial 'questioning' is supposed to be like, especially when the questioner is a dark Jedi, but I just didn't get the impression that Vacendik was really trying all that hard. Don't get me wrong, I've never been in more pain in my life and I hope I never see a pain induction table again, but he stopped long before I thought he would. Does anyone know what I mean?"

††† "I do." Replied Rathbone. "I think I was more afraid of facing Vacendik than all of the rest of you put together. I'm just not like the rest of you. Leland has his ego to protect him, Laz has his rage from the loss of his family, Kyle, you're a hunter, Halasa's a Wookiee, Carek's a Jedi and Dag's been through this before. I'm just a simple engineer. I don't have anything in my background to provide the kind of focus you need to resist a serious interrogation, but like Kyle said, Vacendik just stopped. I can't explain it."

††† "He had to be toying with us." Said Lazarus rolling off of the bunk deliberately designed to be uncomfortable and for Lazarus it was even more uncomfortable with the pain in his arm. He had been treated by an Imperial med droid, but had not fully healed.

††† "I have to agree with Lazarus." Added Dag shuddering as he thought back to his time at Rezick's loft. "I was subjected by the Imperials to several interrogations, so I knew full well what to expect. I don't know what Vacendik called himself doing, but that was not a full interrogation."

††† Just then the blast door to the detention area opened.

††† "Good morning friends." Vacendik said with false cordiality. "I've come by to return something to you." With a contemptuous wave, Three-emm and Sam entered the room, restraining bolts fixed solidly to their chests. "We will be arriving at Endor in less than twelve hours and I wanted you all to be together."

††† "That's touching Vacendik." Said Leland as he tried to spit upon Vacendik, however the dark Jedi simply used the Force to bat the spittle away.

††† "I think I will make it my personal business to teach you some manners you heathen space trash. I will however postpone your re-education until you can see the death of your beloved little rebellion."

††† Vacendik then spun on his heel and departed.

††† The rebel's hopes for escape, buoyed by the arrival of the droids, soon faded when they found that the restraining bolts didn't even allow the droids to speak. Team Bantha could only wait and hope that they would find a means of escape when they reached the Endor system, but with an Imperial territorial fleet waiting for them, those hopes seemed very dim indeed.

††† Rathbone was the first to notice the change in the sound of the engines. "We just dropped out of hyperspace." He said rousing the members of the team that had managed to get to sleep on the Imperial bunks. "What ever the Empire has in store for us, it won't be long now."

††† "Okay everyone look alive," Said Carek looking intently at his comrades trying to gage their emotional state without resorting to invading their privacy by using the Force. "I want everybody alert, we will only get one chance to escape and we have to make the most of it. However, I don't want you so keyed up that you end up throwing your life away on a something that wasn't really there."

††† "We know the drill Carek. We'll be ready." Said Lazarus stretching out the kinks. "I never intend to sleep on one of those things again."

 

††† Vacendik arrived with two squads of stormtroopers soon after the ship exited hyperspace. As the rebels were being escorted to a waiting shuttle, Vacendik gestured out the hanger bay to allow the rebels to see what was so important about the little known Endor system. High in orbit of a beautiful green world was the unfinished form of a Death Star.

††† "I knew the looks on your faces would be priceless and here you go and exceed my wildest expectations." Vacendik chortled at the rebel's awestruck response to the terror of actually seeing a Death Star with their own eyes. "I have some more news that you might find upsetting, especially you young Carek, it would seem that Luke Skywalker has seen the error of his ways and has allowed himself to be taken prisoner."

††† "This can't be!" Carek's mind roared as he fought desperately to calm himself. "The last trained Jedi would not just surrender without a reason."

††† "Ahh young half-trained welp. It is true and soon, you too will join the ranks of those who serve the Emperor."

††† The rebels were pushed aboard the shuttle and remained under heavy and vigilant guard.

††† The shuttle was on its final approach when one of the flight crew came back and delivered a message to Vacendik. As Vacendik read the message, he smiled, and it was an awful, soulless, Death's head of a smile.

††† "It has begun." He said after a moment. "I have just been informed that the entire rebel fleet has just exited hyperspace, and is closing in to attack." He instantly noticed the look of hope on his captives faces. "Oh, I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you. As it is now too late for you to warn them, I guess I can let you in on the Emperor's brilliant plan. Despite it's appearance, this Death Star is fully operational."

††† Vacendik actually laughed when he saw the effect that his announcement had on team Bantha. The team felt the shuttle land and then they were hustled out into the cavernous hanger of the Death Star.

††† "For you see," Vacendik continued to gloat. "The location and timetable of the Emperor's visit, along with the location of the planetary shield that is protecting the 'helpless' station was allowed to leak, to draw the your fleet out of hiding and into a battle of the Empire's choosing. A rebel team attempted to sneak in and destroy the shield down on the planet below, but they have just discovered that it was all a trap and have been captured.

††† "Caught between a territorial fleet, augmented by interdictor cruisers to prevent the rebel fleet from withdrawing, and the Death Star's superlaser, your little rebellion is quite done for."

††† Vacendik had escorted the rebels to one of the mag-lev sleds that were used for transportation on the massive battle station.

††† "I now must report to Lord Vader. These men will be taking you to a holding cell to keep you out of mischief. I will rejoin Mr. Argonaut and Mr. Archimedes to begin your proper education later. The rest of you wretches will be sent to the spice mines of Kessel as soon as I can arrange transportation. Except for Mr. Caltare, for whom the sentence for escaping from an Imperial detention facility is death. You can take heart in knowing that your execution is a major event during tomorrow's celebration of the end of the Rebel Alliance"

††† Vacendik executed a mock bow at the dispirited rebels and departed.

 

††† The stormtroopers shoved the rebels and the two droids onto the sled and six of the troopers boarded as well, carefully keeping the rebels covered. Once the sled was in motion, the troopers finally relaxed.

††† "This looks like the best chance we're likely to get." Thought Carek when he noticed the change in the trooper's stance. He sought for and found the center of calmness that would provide his link to the Force.

††† "I guess my entire life boils down to this moment." Was his last conscious thought before he calmly tapped into the Force and used the power he found there to grab the blasters from the two rearmost troopers and to drop them into the hands of Kyle and Lazarus.

††† Long accustomed to Carek's displays of the Force, neither man wasted anytime trying to figure out how the weapons ended up in their hands, they simply began firing.

††† The stormtroopers, however were not used to blaster rifles leaping from the hands of their owners and into the hands of prisoners and were too shocked to react.

††† Kyle mowed down three troopers and wounded the only one that even attempted to evade his fire. The wounded trooper was knocked almost completely from the sled, hanging onto the guard rail with one hand.

††† Lazarus' fire was slowed by the injury to his firing arm, but he was still able to kill one trooper and wound the last one. Halasa ended the fight by reaching out and throwing the wounded trooper from the sled.

††† Kyle was about to finish off the trooper hanging from the rail when he could hear the man calling his name.

††† "KYLE DON'T SHOOT! IT'S ME ARDENT!"

††† "You're going to have to give me a better reason not to shoot than that." Kyle snarled back.

††† "It was something called a post hypnotic suggestion." Ardent wailed as the walls of the mag-lev sped by at three hundred KPH. "I didn't know anything about it. The Empire must have done it when they put me back together after you left me for dead on Cypryn four!"

††† "I allowed myself to prejudge a friend and it cost him his life." Said Lazarus pushing Kyle's weapon aside. "Don't make the same mistake I made with Arcturus."

††† Kyle looked hard at Lazarus, then reached out and grabbed Ardent's arm. "Okay you've just explained, more or less, why you doublecrossed us." Kyle grunted as he lifted his friend into the sled. "You want to explain how you ended up here, in control of your own faculties and in stormtrooper armor no less?"

††† "The last thing I clearly remember, was working on the forward turret of the customs frigate. I had finished replacing the primary power couplers and was about to start on the secondary, when I could hear this voice clearly in my head saying 'Son of Grandel, you are mine.' After that, everything went hazy. I have only the merest hints of what occurred next, the next clear memory I had, was fighting my way out of a terrible dream that I couldn't recall. I was in a cabin on a starship and at first I thought I was on the Apocalypse. I knew something was wrong with me, so I headed for the infirmary.

††† "I couldn't find my way, so I asked the first guy I ran into, he just ordered me to return to my quarters or be sedated. That kind of jolted me back to reality. So I punched the jerk right in his pompous nose and dragged him through the nearest door, It was just my luck that the room was occupied by some technical geek. I managed to put him to sleep before he could call for help.

††† "Fortunately for me the second guy had a blaster pistol, because after I ditched the two techs, I ran right into four stormtroopers. I'm still not sure what came over me, but somehow I managed to drop all four of them before they could raise an alarm. I dragged them into the same room as the other two guys. I knew with my tattoos I was going to have to come up with a disguise, so I mixed and matched the four sets of armor until I could make a full set without any carbon scoring. I managed to get the door locked and then went looking for you.

††† "I overheard some of the troopers say when the prisoners were going to be moved and just waited until I had a chance to join in. I got very lucky and no one noticed when I jumped the rearmost guard. I took his place on the sled and I was planning to surprise them, when Carek pulled his little stunt. Kyle fired so fast, that I was hit before I could let him know it was me. Considering what you guys must have thought about me, I guess I was lucky that I was only wounded. I don't know what else to say, but I'm very sorry."

††† "Who told you it was a post hypnotic suggestion?" A shaken Dag asked, worried that he himself might be bearing a hidden surprise from the Empire.

††† "I was dimly aware of what was going on around me and I heard the captain and Vacendik discussing how Arcturus and I had been made to do Vacendik's bidding."

††† "I hate to intrude on your little reminiscence," Said Rathbone from where he had taken over driving the sled. "but what's our escape plan going to be Carek?"

††† "Find a hanger bay and get out of here. I don't care how brilliant the Emperor's plan is, something keeps telling me to get out and get out now."

††† "You don't have to be a Jedi to figure that one out." Said Leland. "I just came to the same conclusion myself."

††† "We're all agreed then." Said Ardent removing the stormtrooper's helmet and throwing back down the tunnel. "I'll never understand how they fight in those things."

††† "They can't, that's why they're so easy to defeat." Laughed Kyle.

††† "Quiet! We're coming up on a check point!" Rathbone hissed.

††† The rebel's sled reached an area where the tunnel opened to a large platform. The rebels could see that a squad of stormtoopers were in the middle of deploying and would have a clear field of fire when the sled exited the tunnel.

††† "This exposed sled is going to provide absolutely no cover." Thought Carek who, with loss of his lightsaber, was now unarmed and searching desperately to find a way to arm himself. "I've got it!" He exclaimed when he noticed that the troopers on the platform were carrying grenades on their utility belts. He reached out with the Force and activated a grenade on one of the unsuspecting troopers as the sled began to take ranging shots.

††† The stormtroopers were uncharacteristically bunched up in order to fire down the tunnel, so when the grenade exploded it's effect was far greater than normal. When the smoke cleared and the sled burst into the open, only two of the stormtroopers were still conscious and they were in no shape to fight, quickly falling from the rebel's fire.

††† The rebels raced through the open area and soon they could hear another sled approaching from the front.

††† "You think you can pull that grenade trick again?" Ardent asked as Kyle, Halasa, Lazarus, and he moved to the front of the sled and took up firing positions at the front of the sled.

††† "I doubt it. I can't see their grenades in my mind." Carek replied.

††† "Then we do this the old fashioned way."

††† The stormtroopers could see the escapee's sled clearly through their helmet's low light vision enhancement. The sergeant in charge of the squad was halfway through giving the order for his men to fire, when the tunnel lit up with the light of what appeared to be at least a two dozen blasters.

††† "What? There's only supposed to be seven of..."

††† The sergeant never finished. Team Bantha's fire lanced through the sergeant and the rest of the stormtroopers like a full grown rancor through a herd of tauntauns. The stormtroopers returned fire, but were simply no match for the rebels.

††† "We've got to get off this thing!" Said Leland, looking back toward where the stormtroopers sled was burning brightly. "It's only a matter of time before they box us in."

††† "We've got to find a data terminal." Rathbone added. "If I can get the restraining bolt off of Three-emm, he can find us the nearest hanger bay."

††† "Let's stop here and back track, that should throw off the Imperials for awhile." Said Carek.

††† "I can go you one better than that," Rathbone said bringing the sled to a near halt. "you guys jump clear. I'll hot wire this thing to keep going, maybe that will buy us a few more minutes."

††† The rebels jumped from the slow moving sled and began running full speed back toward the platform they had just passed.

††† "Are you sure you're ready for this?" Said Leland as he made ready to jump. "I mean...I can do it if you prefer."

††† "I've got it under control. While you were running on at the mouth, I finished rigging the sled. You better jump now!"

††† Leland hesitated only a second, before he followed Rathbone from the sled. Leland hadn't even straightened out from his jump, when he saw the sled accelerate up to its maximum speed and disappear from sight.

††† "I figured the Imperials would be expecting us to be moving at high speed, so I gave them high speed."

††† "Nice work."

††† "I like to think so."

††† "Hey Rath, you're in luck! Get a move on!" Ardent called from the platform where he was waiting with the other rebels. "This platform is labeled 'Engineering transfer subsector twelve.'" We should find the terminal you're looking for close by."

††† "It better be, I'm not ready for all this running." Rathbone Grumbled and ran to catch up with his friends.

††† Team Bantha spread out and headed down the main corridor leading away from the platform. They had gone less than a hundred meters when they came upon a blast door marked "Engineering subsector twelve".

††† The rebels rushed the door and found eight very surprised technicians. Despite being completely surprised and obviously out of their league, the technicians tried to resist. Lazarus, Kyle and Ardent took them out of the picture so fast, that not one of them even managed to get his weapon clear of his holster.

††† Rathbone quickly found the tools he needed to remove the restraining bolts from the two droids and soon Three-emm had jacked into one of the Death Star's data ports.

††† "The nearest hanger bay is for TIE fighters," Said Rathbone rapidly scanning the schematic that Three-emm had found. "and it's down three decks. That's all we needed thanks, Three-emm."

††† The little droid let out a burst of beeps and whistles.

††† "He said that the planetary shield is still in place and that the Death Star has begun to fire on the fleet." Sam translated. "In response the rebel fleet has closed to point blank range with the Imperial fleet."

††† "WHAT! Has Ackbar lost his mind?" Leland exclaimed. "Mon-Calamari star cruisers are good ships, but they can't go toe to toe with Imperial class star destroyers!"

††† "I hate to say this Leland," Said Carek with a pained expression on his face. "but there's nothing we can do to help right now. We'll just have to trust that the Force is with them. Now let's move."

††† "Uh, right. The turboshaft is this way." Said Rathbone leading the way.

††† Enroute to the turboshaft, the rebels found four stormtroopers trying to block their path.

††† "Nobody can stop a raging Bantha!" Leland howled over the roar of battle as he added the roar of his blaster to that of Lazarus' and Kyle's. The stormtroopers collapsed in a smoking pile and the rebels jumped into the turboshaft. When the rebels exited three decks down, they found more stormtroopers waiting in ambush. Leland's boast that "nobody can stop a raging Bantha" proved prophetic and these troopers were decimated too.

††† "Kyle?" Said Dag as the rebels jogged the short distance to the next transport sled.

††† "What can I do for you?"

††† "Are you aware how many troopers the team has eliminated since we've started our escape?"

††† "I never keep count. The only thing I keep track of in a firefight is the status of my weapon's power pack and since the Imperials are being kind enough to leave so many laying around, I haven't been keeping too close a count on that either."

††† "Twenty-five, plus those eight technicians and all without taking a single casualty."

††† "Yeah so?"

††† "I'm sorry. It's just that I've never seen anyone manhandle stormtroopers so easily."

††† "If you're impressed by what you've seen so far, you should see what would happen to them if Carek had his lightsaber."

††† Dag didn't know how to respond to that so he kept his thoughts to himself.

††† "All aboard." Leland yelled as the transport sled raced away from its platform.

††† It took less than a minute to reach the hanger at the redline speed that Leland managed to wring out of the sled. The rebels dismounted and ran the last hundred meters to the hanger. Kyle had an uncharacteristic flash of leadership and began setting the rebels battle order.

††† "Laz, Halasa, you take the right side and work toward the center. Ardent and I will take the left. Leland and Rath you cover our back's. Dag and you two droids, keep your head down. Carek, I can trust that you'll to find some way to be of assistance."

††† When the team entered the hanger they found, that despite the intruder alert, the hanger was only guarded by a squad of stormtroopers and a dozen or so TIE fighter ground crew.

††† It was not that the commander of the stormtroopers was failing to take the proper precautions to contain the escapees that were rampaging through the station, it was just that the team was moving far faster than he thought possible. He had already given the order that would assign a full stormtrooper platoon to each hanger bay, but even with soldiers as well disciplined as stormtroopers, it would take time to reinforce the troopers already guarding the Death Star's one hundred TIE fighter bays and almost five hundred additional bays scattered all around the surface of the massive station.

††† Team Bantha sliced into the Imperial's with a virtual wall of blaster fire. Halasa and Ardent howled fierce battle cries as they fired shot after shot from their rapidly overheating rifles.

††† "A shuttle!" Carek exclaimed when he spotted the hoped for escape route. "Laz, Halasa, make for the shuttle, everybody else cover them."

††† The rebels shifted their fire and the two designated rebels made their break.

††† "Kyle above and to the right!" Carek said dodging an intense crossfire that burst from an overhead catwalk that half-a-dozen techs were using for cover.

††† "I've got them!" Kyle answered and responded by blasting out the supports to the catwalk, which teetered and came crashing down with the deafening screams of the tortured metal and the falling techs.

††† Ardent tried to maintain covering fire while Kyle handled the threat from above, but the stormtroopers took advantage of the decrease in fire and Ardent was hit, staggering back, stunned from a ricochet.

††† "Stay with us Ardent!" Carek cried out as he used the Force to keep Ardent conscious.

††† There were only three stormtroopers and four techs remaining when the rebels made their move for the shuttle. Dag and Rathbone went first, followed by Ardent and the two droids. The volume of Imperial fire had dropped far enough for Dag and Rathbone to easily reach the workbench that Lazarus and Halasa were using for cover.

††† Enroute to the workbench, the Death Star's superlaser fired again.

††† Ardent spotted a data port and got an idea. "Three-emm can you tap into that data port and pull up information on that superlaser?"

††† The droid gave an enthusiastic whistle.

††† "Okay then, let's go. Ardent said changing directions for the data port. "you guys go ahead, I've got something I want to check on."

††† "I hope he knows what he's doing." Lazarus muttered.

††† Halasa murmured his understanding and fired again, knocking out one of the remaining techs.

 

††† "Leland, you thinking what I'm thinking?" Said Carek eyeing a row of dagger winged TIE fighters that he had never seen before.

††† "It's unlikely. Why?"

††† "Look at those new TIE fighters up there." He pointed to the indicated rack. "If we were to fly out and join up with a squadron, we could give them one Empire-sized headache."

††† "Carek, that is the most devious thing I've ever heard you say."

††† Leland grinned. "Which for a change, means I'm all for it! Kyle come with us. Carek's got a great idea."

††† "Hold on Leland, don't you think we should wait until the guys are actually on board the shuttle before we stop giving them cover fire?" Reminded Kyle.

††† "Oh yeah. Right." He replied, to the rebels waiting for the signal he called out. "When ever you guys are ready!"

 

††† Three-emm reached the data port and began searching for the requested information.

††† "Make it quick shorty we don't have much time." Ardent said snapping off a series of rapid blaster shots that succeeded in taking out one of the stormtroopers.

††† Three-emm beeped back and data began flying across the read out far too fast for any human to follow.

 

††† As soon as they heard Leland call out, Rathbone and Dag broke cover and sprinted for the shuttle. Halasa and Lazarus followed as soon as their friends reached the shuttle. Unable to match the Wookiee's long strides, Lazarus was a good two meters behind Halasa and at least ten meters short of the shuttle, when one of stormtroopers that had been wounded earlier in the fight, rolled out from where he had taken cover and put a blaster bolt right into Lazarus' side.

††† Lazarus was caught completely by surprise and never saw it coming. The bolt shattered five ribs and collapsed his lung, Lazarus only managed a strangled gasp, then fell end over end coming to a stop well short of the shuttle.

††† The other rebels reacted to Lazarus' ambush with a wave of fire that silenced all of the remaining Imperials. Halasa used the covering fire to double back for his friend. He scooped up Lazarus and wailed a mournful moan when he saw the extent of his injuries. He raced up the shuttle's loading ramp and handed him to Rathbone.

††† "BURNING STARS!" Said Rathbone when he saw Lazarus.

††† "Rwawra grugh dhak."

††† "No, Halasa. I won't let him die. Quick get to the bridge. You've got to get the shuttle ready to go."

††† With one last sad look at Lazarus, Halasa turned and ran to the bridge.

 

††† Outside the shuttle, Leland, Kyle and Carek stood aghast.

††† "Did you see how bad that wound looked?" Said Leland softly.

††† "Lazarus is strong and Rathbone is excellent with a medpac. He will make it." Carek said reassuringly.

††† "Come on, Carek's right." Added Kyle. "Laz has walked away from far worst. And besides, we've got to get suited up."

††† Kyle's reminder was enough to get the shaken rebels moving again. They ran over to a rack of flight gear and began pulling on the form fitting flight suits.

††† "The Empire sure doesn't waste any credits on creature comforts." Said Leland seaching for a suit that would fit. "I haven't been in an unpressurized ship in fifteen years."

††† "I know Leland I don't like it either," Carek replied. "but you know as well as I do that the Empire considers fighters and their pilot's to be expendable."

††† "Just because I know something, doesn't mean I have to like it."

††† "That is very true. Is there a size seven and a quarter helmet over there?"

 

††† Three-emm beeped again and withdrew his data probe.

††† "He said he has the required data, Master Ardent." Sam said dutifully.

††† "That's our cue. Let's move."

††† When Ardent and the two droids were slightly over halfway to the shuttle, they came under heavy blaster fire from a dozen reinforcement stormtroopers. Ardent dodged wildly and escaped into the shuttle safely. However the two droids, who were not equipped to handle combat situations, were both heavily damaged before the managed to limp up the shuttle's loading ramp under Ardent's covering fire.

 

††† As the droids pushed their servomotors to the limits to reach the shuttle, Rathbone was working feverishly to save Lazarus, who was in very real danger of dying.

††† "Close that flaming hatch!" Rathbone yelled when spill over from the stormtrooper's fire began to ricochet around the edge of the hatch that Ardent was using for cover. "Laz will die if I can't stop this bleeding and I can't concentrate with all that noise!"

††† "But what about the other..."

††† SPANNGG! A blaster bolt narrowly missed striking Ardent, but coming close enough to splash him with the bolt's backwash of heat.

††† "Okay. Okay, you've convinced me." Said Ardent slapping the control panel. "Leland and the others looked like they're planning to steal some of those TIE fighters anyway. Yah brin daga! Is that his lung?" Ardent gasped when he saw how badly Lazarus was wounded.

††† "Yes! Now shut up and get over here and help me!"

 

††† Outside the shuttle, the three rebels in full TIE flight gear hadmanaged to sneak past the stormtroopers, who were intently concentrating their fire on the shuttle, and climb up the catwalks that lead to the TIE fighters.

††† "I wonder what they call these beauties?" Said Leland lovingly admiring the sleek new fighters.

††† "Look! The bay door is closing!" Said Carek pointing toward their escape route, not hesitating for a moment, he focused on the Force and sent Halasa a simple one word message. "Launch!"

 

††† In the main cabin, Rathbone felt the shuttle lurch slightly, but he did not have time to comment, instead he continued to spread syntheflesh onto Lazarus' side. "Come on you purple haired boob. LIVE!" He raged at his friend for having the nerve to try and die.

††† "Rath! I'm getting a pulse!" Ardent shouted when the medical diagnostic read out finally shifted from a flatline. "You did it!"

††† Rathbone moved to look at the med scanner himself. "By Deity you're right. Let's move him to one of the seats and get him strapped in. I just know this is going to be an unpleasant ride."

 

††† The stormtroopers tried increasing their firestorm at the departing shuttle in a forlorn hope of stopping the escapees, but the Lambda class was designed to be resistant to light ground fire and the shuttle, rolling slightly to get it's tall center wing through the rapidly closing doors, roared out of sight.

††† "Well at least they won't get all of us." Said Carek as the doors slid the rest of the way shut.

††† "I don't know what you have planned, but they aren't getting any of us." Replied Leland, who stiffened and pointed. "Uh oh. They've spotted us."

††† "I've had just about enough of this." Thought Carek, blocking out the anger that hung at the edge of his mind and begged for release. Carek found the strength to keep his anger at bay and used all the power of the light side that he could muster at that moment, to wrench the weapons from two of the stormtroopers. The weapons flew upward and into the waiting arms of Kyle and Leland, who then sent fire scything through the stunned troopers.

††† "This is the coolest trick you've pulled yet." Yelled Leland over the din of the blasters.

 

††† "Three-emm. I need you to show the data you have on the superlaser to Rath." Said Ardent as he strapped into the co-pilot's seat. He had seen the hanger doors close and was trying to focus his mind on helping the living and not on the loss of his friends. "Halasa, I've got an idea. It's dangerous and I'll understand if you refuse to do it, but that thing is tearing the fleet apart and we have got to do something to stop it. I know this will sound crazy, but with the hull of the Death Star being unfinished, it leaves parts of the interior that would normally be invulnerable, exposed to attack from the inside."

††† "You have lost your mind." Said Rathbone looking up from the communications station, where he was examining the captured data. "You want us to fly inside that thing and try to disable the superlaser from the inside. Don't you?"

††† "The short answer is yes."

††† Halasa whuffed out a long series of grunts and barks.

††† "He said that too fast, I didn't follow all of it." Said Rathbone.

††† "The Death Star's shield is down and there is a group of over twenty X-wings, trailed by a least twice a many TIEs heading this way." Sam replied.

††† The remnants of team Bantha watched breathlessly as several squadrons of X-wings, led by a battered YT-1300 freighter and pursued by a swarm of TIE fighters rocket past and dive into the unfinished superstructure of the Death Star.

††† "I know, I know. If they can do it, so can we." Said Rathbone shaking his head. "I don't believe I'm saying this, but it looks like if we can damage enough of the power capacitors, it will throw off the alignment to the amplification crystals. I don't know if that will destroy the superlaser, but it will definitely weaken it's output far enough for those Mon-Cal star cruisers to have a fighting chance."

††† "You heard him Halasa, follow those TIE fighters at best speed. I'll gun. Rath, you use Three-emm's data to guide us." Said Ardent, his mind drifting to Leland, Kyle and Carek. "I hope this will make up for what happened at Zent Arruke." He mused silently. "What was that Halasa?"

 

††† "Master Halasa said that the Death Star seems to be rotating toward the planet." Said Sam.

††† "Hurry Halasa, hurry."

††† Halasa wailed and took the shuttle into the Death Star.

††† Eleven of the twelve troopers had fallen from the rebel's fire, when the blasters that Kyle and Leland were using leaped from their grasps.

††† "Hey! What gives?" Said Leland.

††† "It's not quite so amusing when it happens to you is it?" Said Vacendik from the floor of the hanger bay. "I have been pursuing you for more than two years, you didn't think I was just going to let you escape did you? You are very fortunate that Lord Vader and the Emperor are, at this very minute, occupied with turning Skywalker to the dark side and are not free to handle you personally.

††† "Lord Vader does not accept excuses or apologies, so you may consider yourselves very lucky that it was I who got the report that you had broken loose and not him."

††† "Well, this still isn't over. You've got to catch us first!" Said Leland making a break for one of the fighters.

††† Kyle and Carek followed suit and took off racing to reach one of the many waiting TIEs before Vacendik could climb the catwalk.

††† Carek had reached a fighter and was in the process of boarding when he felt a virtual shock wave of hate hammer him through the Force. He half felt and half heard Vacendik's bloodcurdling scream of pure rage.

††† "NNNNOOOOOOOOO! YOU CAN'T BE DEAD!"

††† Buffeted again by Vacendik's anger, Carek pulled himself through and sealed the TIE fighter's hatch. "By the Force! What was that! Iíve never felt anything so malignant before in my life." Carek shuddered at the memory, then tentatively felt with the Force sensing for the source of the huge disturbance. "Something big is going on, every time I tapped into the Force here, I could sense this malevolent sense of order all around me." He reached out a little deeper. "It's gone now. All I can sense now is fear and confusion." He shook his head. "Snap out of it man you've got a job to do." He got the fighter powered up and moving just as Vacendik changed directions and dropped to the hanger floor.

††† The hanger bay was large enough to handle a full wing of fighters and that gave the three rebels plenty of room to maneuver in. The only thing preventing their escape was the sealed bay doors.

††† "Kyle. Carek. Form on me." Said Leland carefully maneuvering on the fighter's repulsors. "I think that if we concentrate our fire at one spot, we should be able to punch a hole large enough to escape, like we did at Rezick's Loft."

††† "Sounds like a plan to me." Carek responded as he shifted his fighter into gracelessly into position. "Uh, sorry. I never claimed I was an expert at this."

††† "The doors of the Death Star are far stronger than they were at Rezick's Loft little man!" Vacendik's voice boomed across the hanger. "Come down and fight like men, instead of the cowering little fools that you are!"

††† "What's the hold up Kyle?" Leland said testily, when he noticed that Kyle was dropping toward the deck.

††† "I've got an idea, but it requires landing. Keep an eye on Vacendik will you?"

††† "That's it come and face me. I have no reason to keep you alive now. I will make your death's quick, it will however be quite painful I'm afraid."

††† Kyle set his fighter down as close to the hanger bay controls as he could. Kyle unsealed the hatch, dropped down and began trying to over ride the doors.

††† "Oh no, I wouldn't think of you leaving, my friend." Vacendik said as he used the Force to crush the terminal that Kyle was using.

††† "That's it! I'll take care of this guy myself!" Leland fumed when he saw Kyle roll away from the shattered terminal and put a blaster bolt into Vacendik, who just absorbed the hit. Leland adjusted the fighter's comm unit to broadcast externally. "You like to absorbingblaster energy so much, THEN ABSORB THIS!"

††† Leland stood the fighter on it's nose at let loose with a fearsome burst of fire. The dark Jedi was forced to dodge, using a Force assisted leap, Vacendik barely evaded Leland's initial path of destruction by rolling into a small room.

††† Leland, anticipating the dark Jedi's move, shifted his fire and the TIE's quad lasers, forcing Vacendik to close the blast door, which was the maintenance storage room's only exit. Leland's fire savaged the blast door, jamming it hopelessly.

††† "Now with laughing boy out the way, I might just be able to get those doors open." Said Kyle, looking for and finding another terminal. He had only been working a few seconds, when the entire Death Star actually shook, there were several distant explosions that followed the initial vibration. "That's the way to give it to 'em, whoever you are!"

 

††† "Turn right at the next side vent, the next capacitor should be on the left." Rathbone yelled holding on to the terminal in front of him for dear life. Halasa and Ardent both acknowledged with the near simultaneous firing of the ship's blaster cannons. So far they had destroyed two of the huge capacitors and Rathbone was terrified. "This is insanity. I have allowed myself to be seduced by madness."

††† "Whrwa nhe jhwa?" Halasa had turned to face his reluctant co-pilot.

††† "Yes. I can think of a better way to die! And please keep your eyes on where you're going. What was that?"

††† Rathbone had noticed the Death Star shake for the second time.

††† Three-emm squealed loudly and began beeping frantically.

††† "Master Halasa! Three-emm says we have to leave immediately, something has happened to the Death Star's main power core! We have only twenty seconds to escape!"

††† Halasa wrenched the controls so hard turning the shuttle around,that he actually managed to bend the yolk. Rathbone rerouted all power from weapons and shields and fed it to the engines, driving them fifteen percent over maximum.

††† "Oh Deity this is going to be close!"

 

††† "Outstanding work Kyle!" Leland shouted when he saw the bay doors start to open, He was about to add that it took long enough, when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. "Kyle! Stormtroopers! Carek help me hold them off!"

 

††† "Roger."

††† The two TIE fighters swung around and sent a deadly stream of crackling energy into the platoon sized unit of troopers, that had entered the bay.

††† Kyle jumped into his fighter and was still resealing the hatch, when he saw the bay doors begin to close again. "Won't this ever end." He moaned and activated his comm unit. "Launch without me! I'll be okay!"

††† "No, we all go together!" Carek responded as he brought his fighter around for another pass at the few stormtoopers that remained.

††† "There isn't enough time. Don't make my sacrifice be in vain. GO!"

††† Carek sagged in his harness at the implications of the situation. "You heard him Leland. Launch." He murmured.

††† "You know I'm a better pilot than you are, I'll follow you. It will give me time for one more pass at those troopers." Leland didn't wait for a reply and finished off the troopers.

††† Torn by his duty as a leader and the truth of Kyle's and Leland's words, Carek hesitated.

††† "Go Carek, you can't help me now. It's been an honor serving with you." Kyle then spun the fighter around and flew out of the hanger bay down the corridor still smoking from Leland's strafing.

††† Stung by the loss of his comrade he still hesitated, until he felt a deep bass rumbling coming from somewhere deep in the Death Star. Carek then accelerated toward the rapidly closing doors.

††† "If this were a regular TIE fighter I would never make it." He said to himself as the short dagger shaped fighter narrowly cleared the doors. Once clear, he immediately began searching for the shuttle that carried the majority of team Bantha.

††† Leland waited until Carek was clear, before he slammed down on the acceleration control, for a moment it looked like he would make it, then he heard the TIE fighter scream as the wings scraped on the edge of the bay doors.

 

††† Halasa let loose with an ear-spliting war cry, when the shuttle lept from the Death Star's superstructure.

††† "We're still too close! Head for the fleet!" Said Rathbone. "I'll get on the comm and try and let them know we're friendlies."

††† "Any sign of the others?" Ardent asked softly.

††† "I'll check the sensors.

 

††† "Hold together you piece of junk." Leland yelled at the wildly corkscrewing fighter. It was a tribute to Leland's skill as a pilot that, he was able to keep the severely damaged fighter under control and still moving away from the stricken Death Star.

††† "Stay with it Leland! I'll cover you." Said Carek shifting his fighter into an overwatch position. "Where are those guys?" He thought as he scanned for the shuttle. "I've found them! Leland steer 126 mark 8 as best you can."

††† "Yeah right. With the way this thing is flying, I'll consider myself lucky if I don't run into a planet."

 

††† "I've got them!" Rathbone exclaimed. "No, wait, there are only two of them."

††† "Which two?" Said Ardent heartsick.

 

††† On board the Death Star, Kyle had finally spotted what he was looking for. "It's about bloody time!" He cut power to his repulsors and let his TIE fighter skid to a halt. He popped the hatch, jumped clear and sprinted the last twenty meters to the pod. He dove in head first and triggered the launch sequence.

 

††† Also on the Death Star, Lord Ky Vacendik was still trapped in the maintenance storage room, the blast door was still jammed and he knew he was running out of time. He felt the deck plates began to shake. "I refuse to die this way." He raged and reached down to darkest part of the dark side of the Force. The blast door trembled then flew back off its track, ripped asunder by the raw hatred that was the dark side.

††† Vacendik ran to an intercom. "Open TIE fighter bay thirty-six." Then ran for one of the fighters, not even waiting for a response. He was less than halfway up the catwalk when he sensed the approaching end.

††† "NOOOOOO!"

††† Then the hanger and indeed the entire Death Star flared as bright as a nova, purging the galaxy of Vacendik's evil in the same mammoth funeral pyre that marked the passing of the Emperor.

 

††† Carek and Leland were close enough to the explosion, that the shock wave hit them very hard, with his fighter still functional, Carek was able to ride out the worst of the effects undamaged. Leland however, was at the mercy of the blast. When his battered fighter finally stopped spinning, it had lost all power and he was left floating helplessly.

††† "Rathbone to Carek. Rathbone to Carek. Report." The engineer said suddenly very tired.

††† "Carek here. I'm okay. Rath. Leland needs an immediate pick up."

††† "What happened to Kyle?"

††† "We got separated. I don't think he made it." Replied Carek, his voice choked with emotion.

††† "Understood. We'll be there in three minutes."

 

††† Once Leland was safely aboard the shuttle, team Bantha was ready to fight Imperials. The only problem was, there weren't any Imperials left to fight. The loss of the Death Star had broken the back of the Imperial's resistance and the territorial fleet had retreated with heavy damage. Team Bantha had a hard time convincing the captain of the assault frigate that had detained them, that they were the long lost team Bantha.

††† "Is the Apocalypse here and did her captain. Ehrinn Challis

survive the battle?" Asked an exasperated Carek.

††† "That just proves that you are Imperial spies." The captain insisted. "Challis is an admiral."

††† "With all due respect, sir. If we were spies, don't you think our information would be better? All I am asking, is for you to patch us through to Admiral Challis. She knows us by sight and she is a Jedi she will able to detect if we're fakes or not."

††† "Alright. I'll patch you through and if you aren't exactly who you say you are, I will personally lock you in my own brig, because in case you haven't figured it out by now, there's a new day dawning and there's no room in it for Imperials."

††† "Fair enough."

 

††† "Challis." The admiral did not look up from the damage report she was reading.

††† "Sorry to bother you Admiral, but I have detained a shuttle and a TIE interceptor." Said the captain of the assault frigate. "The crew of the two ships claims to be members of a special operations team that disappeared more than two years ago."

††† "Team Bantha?" Challis said damage report suddenly forgotten.

††† "Yes sir, that's the one. You've heard of them?"

††† "I was the one who sent them on the mission that lead to their disappearance."

††† "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

††† "Send them to me immediately."

††† "But Admiral."

††† "You have your orders, I take full responsibility."

††† "Yes sir." The captain said still unconvinced.

 

††† Five minutes later Halasa and Carek had landed in the familiar docking of the Apocalypse.

††† "I never expected to see this place again." Said Leland waving to Carek who was just exiting his TIE fighter. "It's good to be back."

††† "Yes it is." Ardent replied.

††† "It's good to have you back." Said Admiral Challis from the bottom of the ramp.

††† "Will you guys get out of the way?" Said Rathbone making way for the towering form of the Wookiee cradling the wounded Lazarus.

††† Challis spoke into her comlink. "Med team to landing bay. How bad is he?" She said concern etching her face.

††† "Pretty bad, Cap...uh Admiral." Replied Rathbone. "I thought we were going to lose him."

††† "I can't wait to hear your debrief. There's one thing that I am curious about, what happened to the refugees?"

††† "Let me field that one." Carek said as he joined the group. "We lost the Yazirian K'rigg, but the rest are with Ra'gnayrr at..."

††† "Base station Heracles." Challis finished. "I might have known."

††† "Where is Kyle?"

††† "He didn't make it off the Death Star, sir." Carek said with a pained expression. "He sacrificed himself, so that Leland and I could escape. I would like to put him in for a posthumous star of Alderaan."

††† "There's no need for that Captain."

††† "Admiral. With all due respect, there is a need. That was the bravest thing I've ever seen." Said Leland anger creeping into his voice.

††† "I don't doubt Lieutenant Kyle's bravery, it's just that there's no need for the medal to be posthumous."

††† "What are you saying Admiral?" This from Carek.

††† "I'm saying that, since I agreed to take responsibility for personnel claiming to be in team Bantha, prior to your docking, I received a transmission from the commander of our forces on Endor. Lieutenant Kyle managed to find an escape pod in time. It was a close run thing, but he is uninjured and safe with General Solo's team on the planet.

 

††† The team stared open mouthed for a moment, then exploded with joy. It took the arrival of the med team to restore order to the overjoyed team.

††† "We'll take good care of him, sir." The lead med tech said to Challis as his team led the hover gurney away to sick bay. "You did good work on him Lieutenant Loegin, we should have him at the party in less than six hours."

††† "Thank you." Said Rathbone thoughtfully. "Party?" He said with one eye brow raised.

††† "It's a huge celebration of the victory here and the death of the Emperor." Challis said with the hint of a smile. "You are planning to attend aren't you?"

††† "With as long as we've been waiting for this? Are you kidding? We wouldn't miss it for the world." Said Carek still beaming with the news that Kyle had survived.

††† "We can use your shuttle. We leave in an hour. Dismissed."

††† An hour later the shuttle was enroute to Endor. Leland and Halasa piloted around the squadrons of X-wings that were using modified practice torpedoes to give off a beautiful display of fireworks. The team could not believe the size of the massive trees that give the moon the well deserved nickname of the forest moon of Endor, even Halasa was impressed and reminded of home.

††† Joining the party proper. The rebels watched as the native Ewoks cavorted with their new found friends. The heroes of Yavin and most of the rebel alliance leadership, joined in caught up in the unbelievable joy of the event.

††† "Captain Argonaut, uh...Carek, may I have a word with you in private?" Challis said after several hours when the party began to break into smaller, more intimate groups.

††† "Certainly Admiral." Said Carek guardedly.

††† They moved from the clearing and out of earshot. "First, please call me Ehrinn." Said Challis unpinning her hair and smiling nervously. "Second, I'm going to say something that I've wanted to say for a long time and I thought I was never going to get a chance to say." She took Carek by the hand and took a deep breath. "I love you."

††† "What! I never knew you had any sort of feelings for me."

††† "I knew you were special when I first saw you, but I was your commanding officer and it wouldn't have been right."

††† "Well, this is the second pleasant surprise I've had today.

††† "Second?"

††† "Kyle's survival was the first. And didn't think anything could have topped that one." Carek smiled and took her into his arms. "But you've found a way." He looked deep into her eyes and felt the tentative touch of her mind through the Force. "With the way this day started, this was definitely not how I thought it would end."

††† He opened his mind completely to hers and their minds intertwined in a connection that only the Force could provide. They stood there lost in each others eyes for a endless amount of time, then their lips met in a tender kiss that lasted even longer.

††† "I could learn to like this." Carek said at last.

††† "So could I."

††† They embraced again and watched the dawn break. The first day of a galaxy free of the Empire.