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Empty Space Near Kessel
It was darkness surrounded by stars—one of them, the unlovely sun of Kessel, closer than the rest, but barely close enough to be a ball of illumination rather than a dot—and then it was occupied, suddenly inhabited by a space yacht of flowing, graceful lines and peeling paint. That was how it would have looked, a vessel dropping out of hyperspace, to those in the arrival zone, had there been any witnesses: nothing there, then something, an instantaneous transition.
In the bridge sat the ancient yacht’s sole occupant, a teenage girl wearing a battered combat vac suit. She looked from sensor to sensor, uncertain and slow because of her unfamiliarity with this model of spacecraft. Too, there was something like shock in her eyes.
Finally satisfied that no other ship had dropped out of hyperspace nearby, or was likely to creep up on her in this remote location, she sat back in her pilot’s seat and tried to get her thoughts in order.
Her name was Vestara Khai, and she was a Sith of the Lost Tribe. She was a proud Sith, not one to hide under false identities and concealing robes until some decades-long grandiose plan neared completion, and now she had even more reason than usual to swell with pride. Mere hours before, she and her Sith Master, Lady Rhea, had confronted Jedi Grand Master Luke Skywalker. Lady Rhea and Vestara had fought the galaxy’s most experienced, most famous Jedi to a standstill. Vestara had even cut him, a graze to the cheek and chin that had spattered her with blood—blood she had later tasted, blood she wished she could take a sample of and keep forever as a souvenir.
But then Skywalker had shown why he carried that reputation. A moment’s distraction, and suddenly Lady Rhea was in four pieces, each drifting in a separate direction, and Vestara was hopelessly outmatched. She had saluted and fled.
Now, having taken a space yacht that had doubtless been old when her great-great-great-grandsires were newborn, but which, to her everlasting gratitude, held in its still-functional computer the navigational secrets of the mass of black holes that was the Maw, she was free. And the impossible weights of her reality and her responsibility were settling upon her.
Lady Rhea was dead. Vestara was alone, and her pride at Lady Rhea’s accomplishment, at her own near success in the duel with the Jedi, was not enough to wash away the sense of loss.
Then there was the question of what to do next, of where to go. She needed to be able to communicate with her people, to report on the incidents in the Maw. But this creaking, slowly deteriorating SoroSuub StarTracker space yacht did not carry a hypercomm unit. She’d have to put in to some civilized planet to make contact. That meant arriving unseen, or arriving and departing so swiftly that the Jedi could not detect her in time to catch her. It also meant acquiring sufficient credits to fund a secret, no-way-to-trace-it hypercomm message. All of these plans would take time to bring to reality.
Vestara knew, deep in her heart, and within the warning currents of the Force, that Luke Skywalker intended to track her to her homeworld of Kesh. How he planned to do it, she didn’t know, but her sense of paranoia, trained at the hands of Lady Rhea, burned within her as though her blood itself were acid. She had to find some way to outwit a Force-user several times her age, renowned for his skills.
She needed to go someplace where Force-users were relatively commonplace. Otherwise, any Force use on her part would stand out like signal beacons to experienced Jedi in the vicinity. There weren’t many such places. Coruscant was the logical answer. But if her trail began to lead toward the government seat of the Galactic Alliance, Skywalker could warn the Jedi there, and Vestara would face a nearly impossible-to-bypass network of Force-users between her and her destination.
The current location of the Jedi school was not known. Hapes was ruled by an ex-Jedi and was rumored to harbor more Force-sensitives, but it was such a security-conscious civilization that Vestara doubted she could accomplish her mission there in secrecy.
Then the answer came to her, so obvious and so perfect that she laughed out loud.
She doubted the destination she’d thought of would be on a galactic map as old as the one in the antique yacht she commanded. She’d have to go somewhere and get a map update. She nodded, her pride, sense of loss, and paranoia all fading as she focused on her new task.
Jedi Knight Leia Organa Solo sat at the Millennium Falcon’s communications console. She frowned, her lips pursed, as though she were solving an elaborate mathematical equation, while she read and re-read the text message the Falcon had just received via hypercomm.
The silence that had settled around her eventually drew her husband, Han Solo, to her side; his boyish, often insensitive persona was in part a fabrication, and he well knew and could sense his wife’s moods. The chill and silence of her complete concentration usually meant trouble. He waved a hand between her eyes and the console monitor. “Hey.”
She barely reacted to his presence. “Hm.”
“Another letter filled with teenage talk, I assume. Girls, speeders, allowance woes—”
Leia ignored his joking. “Sith,” she said.
“And Sith, of course.” Han sat in the chair next to hers but did not assume his customary slouch; the news kept his spine rigid. “They found a new Sith Lord?”
“Worse, I think.” Finally some animation returned to Leia’s voice. “They’ve found an ancient installation at the Maw and were attacked by a gang of Sith. A whole strike team. With the possibility of more out there.”
“I thought Sith ran in packs of two. Vape both of ’em and their menace is ended for all time, at least for a few years, until two more show up.” Han tried to keep his voice calm, but the last Sith to bring trouble to the galaxy had been Jacen Solo, his and Leia’s eldest son. Though Jacen had been dead for close to three years, the ripples of the evil he had done were still causing damage and heartache throughout the settled galaxy. And both his acts and his death had torn a hole in Han’s heart that felt like it would last forever.
“Yes, well, no. Apparently not anymore. Ben also says—and we’re not to let Luke know that he did—that Luke is exhausted. Really exhausted, like he’s had the life squeezed out of him. Ben would like us to sort of drift near and lend Luke some support.”
“Of course.” But then Han grimaced. “Back to the Maw. The only place gloomy enough to make its next door neighbor, Kessel, seem like a garden spot.”
Leia shook her head. “They’re tracking a Sith girl who’s on the run. So it probably won’t be the Maw.”
“Ah, good.” Han rubbed his hands together as if anticipating a fine meal or a fight. “Why not? After taking off with all those barvy Jedi that Daala wanted to deep-freeze, we probably have an arrest warrant waiting back on Coruscant anyway.”
Finally Leia smiled and looked at Han. “One good thing about the Solos and Skywalkers. We never run out of things to do.”
Jedi Temple, Coruscant
Master Cilghal, Mon Calamari and most proficient medical doctor among the current generation of Jedi, paused before hitting the console button that would erase the message she had just spent some time decrypting. It had been a video transmission from Ben Skywalker, a message carefully rerouted through several hypercomm nodes and carefully staged so as not to mention that it was for Cilghal’s tympanic membranes or, in fact, for anyone on Coruscant.
But its main content was meant for the Jedi, and Cilghal repeated it as a one-word summation, making the word sound like a vicious curse: “Sith.”
The message had to be communicated throughout the Jedi Order. And on review, there was nothing in it that suggested she couldn’t preserve the recording, couldn’t claim that it had been forwarded to her by a civilian friend of the Skywalkers. Luke Skywalker was not supposed to be in contact with the Jedi Temple, but this recording was manifestly free of any proof that the exiled Grand Master exerted any influence over the Order. She could distribute it.
And she would do so, right now.
Deep Space Near Kessel
Jade Shadow, onetime vehicle of Mara Jade Skywalker, now full-time transport and home to her widower and son, dropped from hyperspace into the empty blackness well outside the Kessel system. She hung suspended there for several minutes, long enough for one of her occupants to gather from the Force a sense of his own life’s blood that had been in the vicinity; then she turned on a course toward Kessel and vanished again into hyperspace.
Jade Shadow, In Orbit Above Kessel
Ben Skywalker shouldered his way through the narrow hatch that gave access to his father’s cabin. The auburn-haired teen was a little shorter than average height, but he was well muscled in a way that his anonymous tunic and pants could not conceal.
On the cabin’s bed, under a brown blanket, lay Luke Skywalker. Similar in build to his son, he wore the evidence of many more years of hard living, including old, faded scars on his face and the exposed portions of his arms. Not obvious was the fact that his right hand, so ordinary in appearance, was a prosthetic.
Luke’s eyes were closed, but he stirred. “What did you find out?”
“I reached Nien Nunb.” Nunb, the Sullustan co-owner and manager of one of Kessel’s most prominent minewor...