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11Edit

Coruscant

Coruscant always teemed with activity. The hustle and bustle of millions of sentients working, walking, breathing, going places, and doing the thousands of things that people do every day filled the massive city. As the political hub of the galaxy, thousands of offworld people arrived and departed every day, leaving the world’s population in a state of constant flux, and just to get enough sunlight to make the planet comfortable required the use of orbiting solar mirrors. The scale of the traffic and infrastructure needed to support all the inhabitants and visitors would be considered overwhelmingly staggering on almost any other world. On Coruscant, it was taken almost entirely for granted.

Fortunately for Selu and Sarth, the massive population also made it easy to disappear. The brothers awoke early, their memories still jarred from last night’s brush with death, each trying to deal with the experience in their own way. Sarth freshened up first and prepared breakfast while Selu, who rose earlier to meditate and exercise, a difficult feat in such crowded quarters, finished and cleaned up in time for both of them to break their fast.

Selu was calm, any anxiety buried in a massive reservoir of Jedi reserve and serenity. Then again, were those techniques not available to him, the emotional stress of the last week or so—which seemed like a lifetime—would have rendered him catatonic. Selu was grimly determined not to let anything befall his brother. Having just started to learn about and experience his family, he was not about to let that go. He’d already lost too much.

Sarth was still a bit jumpy, as the kidnapping attempt had unnerved him. His usual sense of pragmatism hadn’t completely returned, and the sight of his brother casually dishing out pain and death had been disturbing to him. While he had been in combat before, it was in space, against pirates, not up close and personal. Space combat was much cleaner. No blaster-charred faces staring back at you. No cloying smell of burned flesh tainting your clothes.

The two brothers were both cleaning up the remains of their morning meal when a loud knock sounded at the door. Sarth looked up, startled. Selu looked at him in return.

“Don’t worry, Selu,” Sarth said. “I have no intention of repeating last night’s adventure.”

“That’s good,” Selu replied. “I’m sure the Mistryl aren’t either.”

Sarth approached the door, cautiously. Flattened on the wall next to the door, Selu stood ready, his blaster in one hand and his lightsaber slipped out of sight into his jacket’s inside pocket, but still comfortingly close to hand. As the visitor knocked again, Sarth carefully hit the door release and stepped back. Should the arrival prove hostile, Selu was ready to show him or her why Jedi combat prowess was famed across the galaxy.

“Sarth, good to see you!” boomed a loud voice as the door slid open.

“Captain R’hask!” replied Sarth in an equally cheerful tone.

Upon hearing the recognition in Sarth’s voice, Selu slid the blaster back in its holster and tried to look casual.

“Well, my lad, are you ready to—who’s this?” asked the captain, a large Bothan male clad in a dark red shirt and pants, topped off with a plain dark blue jacket.

“Captain R’hask Sei’lar, meet Micor Kraen, my cousin,” said Sarth.

“Nice to meet you, Micor,” said the Bothan.

“The pleasure is mine, Captain,” said Selu.

“Captain R’hask is my employer, Micor,” said Sarth. “Are you still looking for a pilot, Captain?”

“Actually, yes I am. What with all the confusion and all the plaguey mess around here recently, I haven’t been able to find one at a reasonable rate. I figure Jorge and I will just have to handle that.”

“Micor here is quite a good pilot, sir,” said Sarth.

“Really?”

“You’ll find that I’m more than qualified on anything from a starfighter to a Consular-class cruiser, Captain.”

“What kinda pay are’ya askin for?” asked Captain Sei’lar suspiciously.

Selu shrugged.

“Oh, not much. How about 600 credits per standard month?”

“600?! Boy, you are crazy. Try 400.”

“550, and you’ll find I’m well worth it.”

“450, and that’s more than I’d normally pay, but you’re family of Sarth’s, here.”

“Fine. 500 credits per standard month, final offer,” Selu tried to sound exasperated, but really wasn’t. He’d been prepared to accept even 350 or 400 per month, if necessary.

“Done,” the captain said, and they shook on it.

“All right, Micor. We’re clearin’ space soon, so get packed, eat something and meet us at the ship in uh, two hours.”

“Aye, sir,” Selu said, not able to resist imitating the captain’s nautical mannerisms.

“Good to have you on board the Hawk-bat, Micor.”

“Thank you, Captain Sei’lar.”

“Think nothin’ of it, and call me Cap’n R’hask like the rest of the crew.”

“Got it, Captain R’hask.”

With that, the captain gave Sarth a datacard with the ship’s docking bay on it, and then turned and left, leaving Sarth and Selu to pack. They left the purloined weapons and armor they had taken in the rather ordinary-appearing carry-bags the Mistryl had been using. Selu figured that they had some method for defeating scanners. In the one functional helmet that they had managed to keep, Selu carefully deposited his lightsaber, along with Skip’s and Serra’s blades and Master Windu’s belt clasp. Wrapping the holocrons in the remnants of his cloak, he stuffed those into the helmet also and sealed the bag shut. Other than the two large bags of military gear, Selu only had a small bag with a spare change of clothes, his datapad, toiletries, and a few other necessities, most of which had been bought for him by Sarth. Sarth had a couple bags, both larger, and one of which was filled mostly with tools, tech gear and datacards.

“Do you think Captain Sei’lar will ask about the two bags?” asked Selu.

“I hope not. I trust him, but I gave him a false name for you because he knows I have a Jedi brother and I don’t know where he stands on that issue,” replied Sarth.

“In that case, I’d better put something in the bags to resist casual inspection,” said Selu.

Opening them again, he placed a cluster of food packs, the medkit, and some towels on top, disguising the contraband underneath. Now bulging, the bags were resealed and readied. After everything was packed, the two brothers walked to a nearby Alderaanian restaurant and shared one last meal. It was largely flatbread and salad, but Selu also ordered braised nerf and found he liked it. Thankfully, he had plenty of time to enjoy his savory meal. Walking back, they retrieved their bags, but this time took public transport to the docking bay.

Like most of the rest of Coruscant’s lower levels, the spaceport was of drab construction, most likely built years ago. It was marked by a decently sized sign that once read “Dukanis Spaceport” after its developer, but now read “Dkans Spacepot” due to some of the glowing characters having either burnt out or damaged deliberately or in some accident. As Coruscant spaceports went, it was relatively small, with only one level, but boasted ten fully enclosed hangars for medium or light freighters and its own guarantee of security while ships were docked there and twenty professional security guards on staff. The air taxi pulled into a long loading and unloading zone that ran through the entire building, stopping at a small parking zone. Selu and Sarth unloaded their bags and headed for Hangar Five, where Captain Sei’lar had told them the ship was docked.

The large door to the interior was closed, but sliding the datacard Sarth had been given gained them access to a large hangar, at least ten thousand square meters. Parked inside was a light freighter, about forty meters from its narrowing bow to its crescent-shaped stern. If this was the Hawk-bat, then it truly resembled its soaring namesake, save that its neck was longer and its stern was much more curved rather than tapering into a tail as hawkbats did. Sarth walked up to a boarding ramp extending from the side of the craft and entered the ship, Selu following with the bulk of the luggage.

“Welcome aboard, Kraens,” called Captain R’hask, meeting them as they headed down an access corridor to the rear crew cabins.

“Feel free to explore the ship, Micor. Sarth will show you around, I’m sure, while I get the rest of the crew.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Sarth was an excellent tour guide, leading Selu through the ship after the two stowed their gear in one of the three crew rooms. He showed him the crew quarters on the starboard rear wing, the cargo hold that occupied the majority of the port wing, the engine room where he did most of his work, the bridge in the fore of the ship, the wingtip-mounted vacuum-sealed cargo pods, the two escape pod hatches, one on each wing, and the main cargo ramp. Selu was impressed. Though the ship was not a luxury yacht, her captain kept her clean via several cleaning droids, and even decorated with flatscreen panels of famous locales and vistas from the galaxy on the walls, albeit sparsely, and it didn’t look at all like a smuggler ship or tramp freighter. Sarth and Selu were examining the engine room when the captain’s voice was heard.

“I’m back, Sarth and Micor,” he called over the ship’s intercom. “Come back to the lounge and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew.”

Sarth and Selu went up to the crew lounge, located on the starboard wing by the cabins, found Captain R’hask with two other people, a tall brawny brown-haired man in his mid thirties, Corellian if the mannerisms and garb were any indication, and a smallish young woman with short, dark blond hair wearing a deep blue tunic and jumpsuit.

“Micor, this is my first mate, Jorgesoll Knrr. We usually call him “Jorge” around here,” said Captain R’hask, indicating the tall man. “He’s been with me the longest of all my crew. You’ll take orders from either me or him. Jorge, this is Micor Kraen. He’s Sarth’s cousin and if he’s half as good a pilot as his brother is engineer, we’ll be in good hands.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Selu.

Selu and Jorge shook hands and Selu was unsurprised to find that Jorge’s weathered hand had a strong grip.

“And this is Cassi Trealus. She’s new, like you, Micor, and she’ll be the cargomaster. She’s worked in spaceports for a couple of years and is fluent a number of languages.”

“Only nine, though I have a degree in Zabraki. I was going to be a teacher at a university on Coruscant until the war changed everything and I was released from duty,” said Cassi.

“Which nine?” asked Sarth, shaking her hand.

“Basic, obviously, Bith, Bocce, Huttese, Ithorese, Shryiwook—I can’t actually speak that one very well—Sullustese, Twi’leki, and Zabraki. Also, a little trader’s argot also that I picked up from the spaceport.”

“Wait—you speak Bith?” said Sarth, incredulous.

“Sure.”

“That’s impressive. I tried to pick up that one and found I’d bitten off more than I could chew.”

“Thank you.”

“As you can see, Cassi will be quite helpful to us when we’re in spaceports making deals with stingy merchants,” said R’hask. “Now, I hate to push things, but Cassi, you’re needed to supervise the droids loading our cargo in the hold, and Micor, you might want to check out the controls. But first, quarters assignments. Sarth, you and Micor will bunk in the same cabin. Jorge and I will take the other double cabin. Cassi, ordinarily the single cabin is mine, but Jorge and I are used to bunking in the same room and you’re the only female, so you’re assigned that one. I suggest we get moving- ship lifts off in an hour.”

The other crewmembers nodded and went to their respective stations on the ship. Selu went forward to examine the bridge layout, with Jorge accompanying him. Sarth went back to the engine room to check their fueling status, and Cassi and R’hask ventured to the cargo hold, where she checked off the items on a list while he directed the droids ferrying the cargo to position the crates in the appropriate areas.

An hour later, Captain Sei’lar returned to the bridge with Cassi following. While Jorge and Selu occupied the two forward pilot’s chairs, the captain and cargomaster took the two rear seats.

“Freighter Hawk-bat to Dukanis Control, requesting permission to depart,” said Jorge.

“Dukanis Control here, Hawk-bat. We’ve verified your flight plan and cargo manifest, and it checks out. Opening bay doors now.”

As the massive bay doors leading out into Coruscant’s air traffic opened, Selu finished priming the engines and activated the repulsorlift coils. The ship lifted off, hovering a couple meters above the ground. Selu eased the control yoke forward, and the Hawk-bat slid out of the hangar, barely wobbling, into the sky. Feeding more power to the repulsorlift engines, Selu pitched the nose skyward, sending the freighter soaring on a space-bound vector provided to him by Coruscant’s central space control center. Clearing the atmosphere, he fired the ion engines and the Hawk-bat rocketed through space on a trail of blue ion exhaust.

“Good takeoff, Micor,” said Captain R’hask.

“Thank you, sir,” responded Selu.

Selu personally could easily think of half a dozen parts of the takeoff that he could have done better, but considering it was his first time at the controls, he felt he managed to do a decent job.

“Set a course for Bespin, Micor.”

Selu turned his attention to the navicomputer, and after a few minutes of calculation, entered in the correct parameters. The computer whirred and blinked for a minute, and then projected a hyperspace course. Selu checked it against what he knew of hyperspace routes, and then carefully engaged the hyperdrive. The space around them transformed into a tunnel of blue light as the Hawk-bat achieved super-luminal velocities, bound for Bespin.

Tellanroaeg

“Attention.”

Spectre stiffened and assumed the correct military posture as Commander Trip approached. It was the first time he’d seen the commander since his return from his scouting/penetration expedition to the Separatist base, but this was his first day back in the barracks—he’d spent the first few hours getting checked out in the medcenter.

“Alpha-28, you have performed deeds above and beyond the call of duty, single-handedly eliminating a threat to the Empire. You have shown courage and valor under fire.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You have also been insubordinate, modifying your orders without permission and showing undue favoritism to a confirmed traitor.”

“Permission to speak, sir.”

“Granted.”

“On the first charge of insubordination, sir, I did not contact base as I didn’t want to tip off the Separatists’ listening posts that we were scouting as far across their lines as we already were. Once I had determined that the Separatists’ listening posts were inactive, we were already out of comm range, sir.”

“I figured you would say that. Do you have as clever a defense for your actions regarding the Jedi traitor?”

“Sir, this trooper has nothing to say regarding that, sir.”

“Well, you had plenty to say about it earlier, to the other soldiers who were with you. You even got them to help you, didn’t you?”

Spectre thought for a moment about reminding Trip that the orders had never said that the Jedi didn’t deserve decent burial, but decided against it. It would only make things worse.

“Sir, I didn’t order them to.”

“Answer the question, trooper.”

“Sir, I did do that, sir.”

“Don’t ever let me hear of you doing anything like that again, trooper. Regardless of the situation, we obey orders. Got it?”

“Yes, sir. I obey orders, sir. Except when they contradict common sense and my instincts.”

“Your instincts are irrelevant, but your mouth has just sunk your career. The black mark from this incident will prevent you from ever advancing, which is a shame, because you showed a lot of promise. You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Spectre turned and left to go retrieve his gear. Clad in a tunic and pants commonly favored by clones when they weren’t in armor, he carefully took apart and began cleaning and touching up all his gear, especially his weapons and armor. As he removed the carbon scoring from his helmet with a cleanser-soaked rag, he wondered about why he had ever made such a large deal out of the Jedi’s body. His ingrained training told him that once Order 66 had been given, he should have instantly carried out that order, to the point that if Yoda himself had been standing next to him when he received it, he should have instantly, personally, blown his little green head off. However, his independent side encouraged by Jango Fett during his advanced training told him that his instincts and sense were rarely wrong, and that honor was priceless. That training had served him well in the Battle of Kamino, where he and his brothers had battled to defend their half-grown brothers. It had saved his life on Muunilist, where he and nine brothers had been trapped behind enemy lines. It was his actions there that had gotten him his promotion to captain. It had earned him the respect of the Jedi on Hypori, where he had narrowly survived an encounter with the dreaded General Grievous while rescuing and covering the retreat of a group of Jedi.

He thought about what he would do now that the war was over. Trip was right about one thing. With a black mark like that on his career, he’d never get far in the Imperial military, especially if it became political. Also, there was the matter of his rather short life expectancy. All clones, ARCs included, had been growth-accelerated to bring them to maturity, but it also meant that Spectre couldn’t expect to survive beyond forty or fifty standard years. As it was, he was theoretically in his late-twenties in biological years, though he was a little more than half of that chronologically. Maybe he’d retire and go native on some little world. Maybe he could be a militia instructor or something. However, for the moment, his service was still pledged to the Empire.

Spectre finished up the cleaning of his armor and gear, and put it on, piece by piece, finishing by sliding the metal helmet over his head. He left the barracks and found that it was evening on Tellanroaeg. The two moons had just barely risen over the horizon and the sky was partially obscured by patchy clouds. Walking out in the dusk of the day, he went to the camp where the local recruits he had trained were billeted for a few hours. Despite their relative inexperience, they had fought well and helped repulse the droid attack, albeit with high casualties.

Gazing across Tellanroaeg’s horizon, Spectre first felt rather than heard the blast. The ground rumbled as he turned to see a geyser of flame and oily black smoke jet into the sky from the command center. Turning back, he sprinted back to the burning building. Part of the three-story building had been completely blown open, and even more had collapsed after being weakened by the explosion. By the time he got there, emergency crews were arriving with fire-fighting gear. Armored and unarmored clones lay strewn about, some in various stages of consciousness, others trying to pull their comrades out of the hellish fire, some already departed on the final run.

Spectre switched his helmet lights on full, sealed his helmet, and plunged into the burning building in search of survivors. Some of his comrades were still alive in there, and it was up to him to find them. Oblivious to the raging flames, he found an armored clone lying prone on the ground, bleeding from the head. While any medical professional would tell him that moving an unconscious man with a head wound was taboo, Spectre made exceptions for when the building he was lying in was engulfed in flames. Spectre scooped up the man and slung him over his shoulder, and then raced out of the building, picking his way over collapsed beams and wreckage while avoiding the flames that licked at his boots. Reaching the edge of the building, he handed the man off to a medic and plunged back in.

This time, he found a technician trapped inside a room when the fire cut out the electric circuits controlling the door. The air inside the room had heated enough that the man’s clothes are starting to smolder and ignite. Spectre pulled out a breaching charge and armed it. Waving a hand through the smoke-streaked transparisteel viewport, he waved the tech away from the door and, crouching a safe distance away, blew the door in, letting the tech out. Unfortunately, the technician didn’t get very far before his clothes burst into flame as they reached the combustion point. Screaming, the tech began flailing about. Spectre tackled him and stripped off the burning shirt before half-dragging, half-carrying him out to the medics. Looking down, he noticed in horror that his gloves were leaving hand-shaped burns on the man’s skin from the heat they were conducting. Ordinarily, he would have tried to be gentler to a civilian, but even through the roar of the flames he heard more screams from inside the building, and haste was of the utmost importance.

Spectre ran in one more time, keenly aware of the structural failings happening around him. He could hear the groaning of metal, overloaded by the collapse of other support beams and trusses, and the popping sound as joints failed. Smoke blackened his visor and loose permacrete flooring and wall crashed around him. Once, he nearly escaped being buried under a couple tons of ceiling. Only a desperate leap got him out of harm’s way, though his kama was pinned under a large beam, sending him sprawling painfully to the ground. Using his vibroknuckler, he cut himself free and pressed on. His helmet sensors indicated that there was a faint life sign at the end of a corridor. Spectre started down the corridor, ignoring the warnings his armor suit was trying to give him, ignoring the beads of sweat rolling down blistered skin. His sensor had peaked out at over 500 degrees before failing. His coolant systems were extremely overloaded, but were the only things keeping him from literally roasting inside his armor, and his air filters were also not going to last much longer. Spectre finally found the goal of his search: a clone, lying stunned, apparently knocked unconscious from blast. Judging by the indentation in the wall, he’d been thrown into it with considerable force and concussed. Fortunately for him, he was still wearing his armor.

Spectre bent down to check if the clone was still alive and was surprised to find that it was Commander Trip, unconscious but breathing faintly. Part of Spectre, the creative, independent part, considered leaving Trip here. The journey into this inferno had been hard enough without a large body to bear, and Trip had already shown his dislike and hostility towards Spectre. It would be easy to say that he was already dead before Spectre got to him, and would satisfy the desire for revenge Spectre had at Trip for ruining his career.

“Make your choice, then live with it.”

Maybe it was the heat or the dehydration, but Spectre thought he heard Jango Fett’s voice prompting him to action. His mental debate cut out rapidly. Cradling Trip in his arms, he picked up the commander and began lifting him out of the building. Trip wasn’t a personal enemy of his—he was a commanding officer and a brother, even if they did disagree on the issue of orders and proper respect. If Spectre left Trip here, he would never able to live with himself no matter what he did. There was no other choice he could make, and deliberately failing to save a brother went against every microgram of training that had been distilled into the ARC’s mind and body.

Struggling forward, Spectre went slower, keenly aware that his overworked cooling and filtration systems were on the brink of failure and that Trip might die in his arms despite his efforts. Spectre rounded a half-shredded corner only to find a massive permacrete pillar blocking his way. While he could clamber over it, it would be almost impossible to get Trip over the obstacle. Yet another golden opportunity to ditch Trip had just presented itself to Spectre.

However, rather than take it, he planted his last two breaching charges on the pillar and blew a deep enough groove through it that he could drag Trip through. Spectre regretted the rough handling, especially since Trip’s diagnostic system on his suit had failed and wasn’t displaying any medical information whatsoever, but he had no choice. Grunting and straining, he lugged Trip through the groove and kept on going.

Several minutes later, Spectre was dazed and rapidly becoming disoriented. His arms felt like lead and he was vaguely aware of his suit’s air filters failing, limiting the supply of clean air to him due to all the smoke particles clogging the filter. Finally, utterly unable to place one foot in front of the other, he collapsed next to Trip, his armor smoking. Valiantly struggling to rise, he managed a crawl, still pulling Trip along with him. Some part of Spectre’s mind noted in an oddly detached manner that surviving the Clone Wars to die in a fire was a rather ignoble end for an ARC.

Gasping for air that was more smoke, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide than anything else, he realized he was hallucinating. That was bad—it meant his brain was oxygen-starved and that he would soon pass out. But there was no other explanation for why there would a thunderstorm, complete with flashing lightning inside a burning building. Only belatedly did he realize that it was no thunderstorm, but a combination of water and a blink code signal.

A team of firefighters had pushed their way into the building, trailing a large hose spraying a potent mix of water and other fire suppressants into the blaze. Coming upon Spectre, they had tried to use a GAR blink code to signal him, but had gotten no response. Pressing forward, they doused Spectre and Trip with fire suppressants and called for a stretcher. One of them, recognizing the ARC’s failing air systems, pulled off his helmet and, unfastening Spectre’s helmet, placed it over him.

Spectre realized that someone was trying to take off his helmet. He tried to fight, but his air-starved brain couldn’t figure out the necessary motor impulses to force his arm into an effective punch. Then his helmet was off and his already scorched face and lungs were exposed to the searing heat of the fire. Suddenly, a different helmet was down over his head and a stream of cool, fresh air was flowing into his lungs. Inhaling deeply, he signaled his thanks to the firefighter and took several more breaths before handing the helmet back. Assisted by one of the firefighters, he staggered out of the building as two others led Trip out on a stretcher.

He was quickly sat down by a medic, who insisted that he wouldn’t be going anywhere until Spectre complied. Swabbing his face with a burn salve, the medic glanced at a medisensor from time to time before finally calling an aide over. Laying Spectre down, they sedated him and inserted a small tube down his throat and began pumping oxygen and an anti-burn agent down his singed bronchial passages. After half an hour of therapy, they removed the tube and woke him up to inform him that he was being moved to the medcenter.

Spectre, on the other hand, disagreed. His trip to the world of the unconscious and the therapy he had received had made him feel much better. Plus, he was close enough to the top of the chain of command that he might be in command until Trip recovered. He pushed aside both the medic and his orderly, knowing he would be more use on his feet than sitting in a bed somewhere.

Finding the firefighter chief on the scene, who was containing and pushing back the blaze, Spectre was able to obtain an initial casualty report. He was pleased to find that a non-clone major was now the ranking officer, sparing him the burden of command and freeing him up to investigate the cause of the fire. Tellanroaeg was still technically a war zone, and Spectre was not about to rule out terrorism as the cause of the fire. It was time for a hunt. It was time for payback.

12Edit

Bespin

By the time the Hawk-bat had reached Bespin, Selu was thoroughly familiar with the controls of the ship and flew it with much more ease and grace. Jorge was a good teacher, and while not as good a pilot as Selu, was infinitely knowledgeable about the ship and its captain. While exploring the board, Selu was surprised to find multiple weapons systems on the ship, especially since the ship didn’t appear to be armed with more than a single pair of laser cannons in the nose.

“Jorge, what’re all these fire-control boards for?” asked Selu.

“Those are for the laser turrets,” replied the first mate.

“Laser turrets? This ship has laser turrets?” said Selu, bewildered.

“Yep. Those four blisters on the wings that most people think are fuel cells or sensor pods are actually laser turrets. If some rodder tries to attack us, the covers open up and the turrets pop out.”

“There are barely enough crew to man them all.”

“Eh, that doesn’t matter so much. The guns are controlled by a really spiffy droid brain. Didn’t your cousin tell you about the programming he did on that?”

“No, I think he skipped over that story.”

“Oh, it works great. I don’t know where he learned all those firing routines and algorithms and all that, but he did a nice job on it.”

Selu smiled. It was a good thing that the Science Division apparently didn’t know about Sarth’s memory or they’d be after him too. Sarth was more than likely using combat programming he’d remembered from Separatist battle droids to program the freighter’s self-defense systems.

“Yeah, your cousin is the best engineer we’ve had. He already upgraded the shields and guns, and now he’s been working on the engines. We make a good haul on this Bespin run, and Cap’n R’hask will probably give him some of the proceeds to help Sarth make the improvements.”

Selu carefully brought the ship into Bespin, early in the local morning, escorted in by a pair of the indigenous dual-pod cloud cars. Bespin had fallen to the Confederacy during the war, but the deactivation of the droid armies had allowed the natives to reclaim the planet. Selu suspected that the Empire would be hastier to take the planet, but so far, they hadn’t made any move towards the system. Captain R’hask and Cassi figured to make a good windfall here, bringing a load of expensive textiles to the planet. As one of the first freighters from Coruscant, they expected to get a good deal on their materials. Selu wove through a maze of small satellites and luxurious looking skyscrapers that somehow reminded him of Coruscant, save that the sky and magnificent columns and piles of clouds were more visible. Finally, guided to a landing pad, he set the ship down on repulsors, extending the landing gear.

Upon landing, Captain R’hask gave the crew their assignments while on Bespin.

“Well, lads, we’re on Bespin. Cassi, Jorge and I will be occupied trying to sell our cargo. Sarth, you and Micor stay on the ship—I’m not sure how safe this place is with the war just ending and all.”

The four other crewmembers nodded their agreement and returned to their duties. Selu felt he was getting the hang of the ship and was growing accustomed to the others, but was relieved at the chance for privacy. Some things just couldn’t be done in the presence of the others.

After the others left, he headed towards the empty cargo hold. Retrieving his lightsaber, he went through a series of combat drills and velocities, whirling and spinning despite the enclosed space, but never leaving a mark on the ship’s bulkheads or flooring. He could meditate and practice some techniques in the privacy of his cabin, but not this. He and Sarth had decided not to disclose his identity or heritage, especially not in the presence of Cassi, a completely new crew member. Letting the Force flow through him, he wove through the intricate dance of a lightsaber form, his blade a whirring, humming reminder of its presence as it stabbed, slashed, and spun through the air of the hold. This type of exercise was something he had missed, and returning to it allowed him to help work out his grief and loss. He could visualize his target as a tangible representation of the emotions associated with the destruction of the Jedi Temple and fight it as he would a living opponent. Plus, it kept his skills sharpened for if he ever returned to being a Jedi Knight.

His Force senses extended, he would have been able to easily tell the difference between one of the ship’s droids and one of the crew, and even between Sarth and another crewmember. This heightened awareness also would let him know if anyone was trying to sneak up on the Hawk-bat—say, a Mistryl, for example. He could sense Sarth working on one of the fuel lines in the engine room, but thankfully, there were no other sentient creatures nearby. He had already ordered the droids not to come into the hold while he was practicing—if one did, he probably would have to give it a memory wipe. Droids could talk about things they weren’t supposed or could have their memories retrieved by someone who knew what he was doing, and Selu didn’t feel like dealing with that. Eventually, he finished his practice, and after cleaning up, began reviewing some more of the technical readouts for the ship’s systems. If this was to be his home and job, he wanted to be good at it.

It was late in the evening when the other three returned, having been out on business for most of Bespin’s relatively short day, and Captain R’hask was in high spirits.

“Guess what, lads?”

“You won a free fur treatment at a local salon?” asked Selu facetiously.

“Better than that?”

“The government has decided to ignore the thousands of credits you owe them in back taxes?” asked Sarth with an impish smile.

“Huh. You two are hopeless,” said the captain, eying Sarth treasonously. “No, we sold all of our cargo, and at a premium rate. Also, we picked up another cargo to take with us.”

“Selling our cargo was actually the easy part,” said Cassi. “Bespin is desperate for any kind of offworld goods from the Empire, now that the war is pretty much over.”

“And they pretty much only have one major export, and they’ll need new buyers now that the Confederacy has collapsed,” Sarth pointed out.

“Tibanna,” added Jorge. “Without that gas, Bespin wouldn’t be as prosperous as it is.”

“Aye, and that’s what we’ll be carrying,” said Captain R’hask. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning as soon as the cargo’s loaded, but first, we’re going to get dinner at a fancy local restaurant and have some fun. Go get dressed in your nice clothes, and let’s celebrate!”

Selu looked quizzically at Sarth, who shrugged and headed back to his cabin, as did Jorge and Cassi.

“Captain?”

“What is it, lad?”

“I don’t have any nice clothes, just a couple changes of everyday wear.”

“Why didn’t you say so? I know a tailor who’ll give us a discount after the deal we cut with him earlier—he should still be open. Just tell him you’re with us. Head on over there and we’ll rent a speeder and pick you up.”

Captain R’hask handed Selu a comlink with an image of a hawkbat embossed on it and gave him directions.

Heading out of the spaceport, Selu also downloaded a map of the city from an information terminal and found that the tailor’s shop was within a couple kilometers of his location, so he walked rather than spend creds on an air taxi.

Selu reached the tailor’s shop about two dozen standard minutes before it closed. Walking up to the proprietor, a young Sullustan, Selu explained what he needed and on what ship he was crewing. The proprietor cheebled at him excitedly, and Selu wished Cassi was along as he didn’t speak but a few dozen words of Sullustese. Thankfully, the tailor took Selu’s measurements and used a hologram with labels in Basic to display what he had in mind. They went back and forth on the style, cut, and material, until both parties were satisfied. The Sullustan went and retrieved the necessary fabric and tools, and thirty standard minutes later was finished. Selu, impressed by his alacrity, figured that with his taste and efficiency, the Sullustan would likely end up serving wealthy customers on some pleasure ship or resort world. Activating the comlink, he called the captain to let him know that he was finished and went to the dressing room to change.

When he emerged, gone were the dark gray pants, lighter shirt, and brown spacer’s jacket. Those were neatly folded and placed in a bag. Selu stepped out, clad in black pants, a high-collared white tunic with gold buttons with a real leather belt and a dark blue coat over that, cut along vaguely military lines. He was still wearing the same boots he had worn as a Jedi. Selu paid the tailor and left the ship to wait for the speeder. Upon seeing the others, he was glad he had showered and cleaned up after his exercises.

As their rented speeder pulled up, he saw Captain R’hask wearing a more formal version of his captain’s outfit, complete with gold piping on the shoulders and collar and Jorge wearing similar apparel, but with silver piping. Sitting in the back seats were Sarth and Cassi. Sarth had dug up a pair of black pants and matching coat to go with a silvery-gray shirt with a similar collar to Selu’s, making him the least formal-looking of all of them, but still presentable. Cassi, on the other hand, had apparently put the time Selu had created by his visit to the tailor to use by curling and putting up her hair and accentuating her strapless, shimmering dark red floor-length dress with earrings and a necklace. Selu climbed into the speeder and they were off, bound for the Paradise Cuisine restaurant, one of Bespin’s ritzier joints. Walking into the marble halls decorated by greenery, Selu realized that Captain R’hask must have really made a windfall for them to be eating at this place—a meal here might cost half his monthly wages. The servers were sentient, not droids, the furnishings, down to the tablecloths and utensils looked expensive, and there was a live band playing. A somber-looking host escorted them to a table in a room lit only by glowing candles and dim glowpanels. Selu, having attended enough diplomatic functions with Plo Koon to know when etiquette was called for, pulled out the chair for Cassi before sitting down. It wouldn’t do for the new pilot to be thought of as a barbarian, he thought as he tucked his napkin onto his lap.

“Each of you orders what you want,” said Captain R’hask. “Dinner’s on me tonight.”

Selu, looking at the exotic and expensive meals on the menu, was glad for that. As expected, the prices on some of the dishes were quite steep. Looking down the menu, he finally decided on gourmet roast hibbas breast with a bota fruit sauce, along with local specialty pasta and a fruit chill, whatever that was. The holographic display on the menu looked good, so he ordered one, along with a fancy Alderaanian wine to drink, which was what the menu suggested to go with roast hibbas breast.

When the food arrived, Selu was impressed by the artful arrangements. Each plate looked as if it had been sculpted rather than simply food arranged on a plate. He ate slowly, seeking to enjoy the meal, which was absolutely delicious, and the frosted goblet of wine helped him relax, dulling his inhibitions. As they ate, the crew engaged in the polite conversation of friends, despite having only known each other for a few days. Captain R’hask and Jorge told space-faring stories, one after another, many of them humorous.

“I see you ordered fruit chill,” said Cassi to Selu.

“Yes, I did. It looked good,” replied Selu, turning to face her and noticing a similar bowl of artfully arranged fruit pieces frosted with flavored ice and a light syrupy sauce in the shape of some sort of avian/humanoid creature in front of her also.

“Have you had it before?” she asked.

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“I had it once, back home on Bakura. The syrup is made with namana fruit extract—a popular commodity, but too expensive for even a well-off farmer to eat.”

“It tastes wonderful,” Selu said.

Suddenly, a small chiming signal was heard. Around the room, couples began getting up and moving to the center of the floor, near the band, where the floor was bare, aside from a quartet of small fountains.

“What’s going on?” asked Sarth.

“It looks like a dance,” said Jorge. With a roguish smile and just a bit of the charm that his native Corellia was known for, he took Cassi’s hand.

“May I?” he asked.

“I’d be delighted,” she said, and the two were off.

Captain R’hask similarly left, seeking the company of a group of Bothan females he had seen, leaving Sarth and Selu sitting at the table. Selu spied Sarth watching Cassi dance, first with Jorge, then with others around the room as the tide of the music ebbed and flowed through mostly classical tunes popular among the wealthy and sophisticated.

“Bespin to Sarth Kraen. Come in, Sarth,” Selu teased his brother.

“Huh? What is it?” said Sarth, his gaze distracted from Cassi.

“It’s not polite to stare, Sarth,” said Selu, still joking.

“I know, Micor,” Sarth replied.

The two had decided to use the alias whenever not absolutely alone and the restaurant was no exception.

“I can’t help it. She’s just so . . .”

“Beautiful?” said Selu.

“Yes,” said Sarth, sighing a little.

“In that case,” said Selu, “Go dance with her.”

“I can’t do that,” protested Sarth.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how,” Sarth admitted.

“Spare me the mynock spit. You’re the one who had the ‘normal’ life, and you never learned how to dance?” said Selu.

“Education was more important. Besides, you’re not saying you can, are you?” said Sarth suspiciously.

“Watch and learn, Sarth,” said Selu, rising from his seat with a devious smile.

Selu entered the group of dancing couples and soon found himself dancing with one of the Bothan females that Captain R’hask had taken an interest in. Gliding across the dance floor with graceful ease, he changed partners with each change in the music or song. Dancing, according to Master Yoda, was just as important to being a Jedi as knowing how to use a lightsaber. The pang of sadness that the remembrance brought him nearly killed his good mood, but he shoved the grief aside and bowed graciously to his current partner, a young local woman named Jelida Ynr and stepped aside so her husband Daklis could dance with his newly wed bride again. He had wished them happiness, and then moved on through the crowd with practiced ease. Selu managed a small smile. Despite his extensive knowledge of societal niceties from a host of diplomatic functions he had attended with Plo Koon and finesse on the dance floor from Master Yoda’s tutelage, he had little interest in ever settling down like Jelida and Daklis planned to. Still, there was nothing wrong with wishing others good fortune.

Finding Cassi without a partner, Selu walked up to her.

“May I have this dance?” he asked, bowing ever so slightly.

Fortunately, that gesture was as much a part of various cultures as it was of the Jedi, he reflected. Taking his hand, Cassi allowed herself to be swept across the floor. The band was playing a fast-paced, lively number, but Selu, assisted by Force-enhanced reflexes and observation techniques, kept up like he’d been doing it all his life.

“You’re a good dancer,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve danced a few times before.”

“Really? On Commenor?” she asked.

Selu knew Cassi was only making small talk, but he didn’t really want to have to make up an entire fictional life story on the spot, especially after so much good food, wine, and dancing.

“Yes, when I was still in school,” he said.

That much was true, if one classified Jedi training as school. Changing the subject, he began asking her about her studies and Bakura, which thankfully she was willing to talk about for some time. Leading her by the one of the fountains, Selu spied what he was looking for, just as the music was ending. As the orchestra crescendoed to its climax, Selu signaled for an intricate turn from Cassi, usually done only by someone familiar with the dance, as he’d seen some of the other more experienced dancers on the floor do. Cassi caught the signal and went into the turn, just as the climax ended and the band switched to a much slower-paced song after a small rest. She was surprised to find not Micor’s, but Sarth’s hand holding hers with him bowing in front of her as the band began again. Unbeknownst to her as his head was down in the bow, Sarth was equally surprised.

Selu, who had slipped off behind the fountain, smirked quietly. He had spied Sarth hesitantly standing near the edge of the dancers, watching the group, and while Cassi was distracted with the turn, had carefully placed her hand in Sarth’s while the smallest of kicks to the back of Sarth’s knee was enough to create a decent imitation of a bow from Sarth, albeit involuntary.

Sarth Kraen was incredibly surprised, and that hadn’t happened to him much, until he had met Selu. One minute, he had been eyeing the refreshment bar thinking about the contents of some of the drinks and their costs, and the next instant he found himself bowing and with a slim, soft hand in his. He straightened to find himself looking at Cassi as the band started a slow, vibrant song from Alderaan. She smiled at him, and Sarth thought the thudding of his heart was audible on the other side of the room and that she could surely sense his nervousness. Catching Selu’s wink out of the corner of his eye, Sarth realized he had been set up and went along with it. With one hand gently holding Cassi’s and the other wrapped around her back, he began dancing with the slow, sonorous melody, if a little clumsily.

“Beginner?” she asked.

“Yes,” he admitted as he nearly trod on her toes for the third time. “I’m not nearly as good as Micor. We had different backgrounds.”

“We all have to start somewhere,” she said. “Don’t put yourself down just because your cousin is better at something than you are. And don’t be nervous.”

“Me—nervous? Ha, never!” said Sarth, attempting to keep his voice from shaking.

Selu, witnessing the whole scene courtesy of Force-enhanced senses, decided it was time for a bit more “direct intervention.” He’d never been good at manipulating minds, but in this case, he was merely helping Sarth’s mind along, which made it easier than if he had been trying to convince him to do something he didn’t want to do. Concentrating, he used the Force to slightly enhance Sarth’s own personal aura while triggering his brain to release a stream of endorphins, making him more relaxed. Selu didn’t plan on doing this every time Sarth went out on a dance floor, but his little boost seemed to be working quite well. As the song progressed, Sarth was sure he was getting the hang of the dance. Working his way across the dance floor with Cassi, he relaxed and let himself flow with the music. Now that he wasn’t concentrating so much on the steps, he was aware of the scent of her perfume- it smelled like flowers.

“Fast learner,” she said. “I wish all my students back at the university picked things up as fast as you do.”

“I thought you hadn’t become a teacher yet,” Sarth said.

“I was an assistant teacher while I got my degree. It helped me keep up my skills and looked good on my dossier of skills and experience for when I applied for a teaching position.”

“If the war’s over, why aren’t you looking for a teaching position?”

“I’ve given it some thought. Right now, the universities on Coruscant are in an upheaval, and I’ve been too busy working to try and search for teaching positions much. I imagine the rest of the Galaxy is a bit busy trying to reorganize itself too.”

“Nonsense,” said Sarth. “Children have to be educated, no matter what’s going on, or they’ll never develop their potential.”

“Maybe you’re right,” she said.

“That necklace,” Sarth said. “It means something to you, doesn’t it?”

“Observant, aren’t you? Yes,” she said. “It was given to me by my mother before I left Bakura. It’s a family heirloom. How did you know?”

“I saw the way you fingered it when you were talking with Micor about your family.”

“Good catch,” she said.

“It’s beautiful,” Sarth said, reaching up to touch the durindfire jewel dangling from the silver chain hanging around her neck. His fingertips brushed the smooth metal jewel and just a little of her soft, silky, skin.

“That durindfire goes well with your dress.”

“Thank you,” she said.” The uh, song’s over. Are you going to let go of my hand before the next one starts?”

“If you want me to,” he said. “Do you?”

She thought about it for a minute, then shook her curly tresses.

“No. You’re fine.”

Tellanroaeg

Spectre thanked the injured man lying in the hospital bed for his time and helpfulness and slipped his datapad back into his pocket before leaving the room. He had spent the better part of the past two days looking for clues to the blast, and had a list of useful information.

So far, he knew that there had been a bomber and that he or she hadn’t been wearing clone trooper armor. All who he had asked remembered that there had been an unarmored civilian or military personnel nearby the building shortly before the blast went off. Unfortunately, there had been many of techs, civilians, and even local militia by the command center before it exploded. Examining the blast site, Spectre realized that this couldn’t have been done by a clone trooper, even if it was possible for one to be treasonous. As far as he knew, it wasn’t. It was too imprecise, too messy. For as much detonite as had been used, a clone trooper, droid, or professional saboteur would have been able to collapse the entire building. Instead, the explosive force had not been focused against the support buildings, but had blown through the entrance instead. It was dumb luck that one of the smaller rooms had been used for storing flammable liquids, which had created an intense fire when ignited. That damage, though, was nothing to what could have been accomplished with a better knowledge of explosives or structural engineering. That is, unless the bomber was so good he or she was trying to cover his tracks by making the blast look sloppy.

Spectre had obtained a roster of people who were on duty or were known to be near the blast site in a ten minute time slot before the blast. A bomb as large as that would have had to be placed against the entrance booth and would have been noticed by one of the guards before too long. Unless the bomber was a crazed fanatic, he would have needed some time to get away and trigger the bomb. Spectre had already sifted through the rubble—the bomb had been set off by a trigger, not a timer. He’d traced the signal, but it had turned out to be a standard base comlink, one of several thousand available for authorized personnel needing to get in contact with base facilities. Spectre looked at the list: eighty-nine names. He removed all those who were dead: They wouldn’t be able to help him. He also removed all the clones. Twenty-five names remained. So far, he had questioned four. Twenty-one more people were left to question.

Spectre went in search of the people on his list. The sooner he found more clues, the faster he’d be able to stop this menace. The trail was always easier when it was warm. All he had to do was hit a nerve and flush his quarry. Once spotted, the bomber would be easy prey for the firepower, brainpower, and manpower he could bring to bear on him. That thought brought a grim smile to the ARC’s face.

Two days later

“Lieutenant Narson, where were you at 1914 hours two days ago?”

“Me and my crew were having a meeting in one of the forward conference rooms.”

“What was the nature of this meeting?”

“We were discussing the demolition of the Separatist minefields in preparation for shipping their droids out for scrap metal.”

“Can any of your crew back up your story?”

“Sure. Lour survived the blast with just a broken arm. He’s in the medcenter.”

“Do you have any reason to disapprove of the Empire’s presence on Tellanroaeg?”

“Well, you did seize all my construction equipment for the ‘war effort,’ so I’m not the biggest fan. I had no choice but to join up as an engineer. It was either that or starve. Or get blown up.”

“So you have experience with demolitions?”

“Of course I do. It’s my job, you know. Hey, you’re not trying to say—?”

“I’m not saying anything yet. It’s my job to get to the bottom of this. If your conscience is clean, you have nothing to fear,” Spectre said. “You can go now.”

So far, the engineer seemed to be the most likely suspect if Spectre believed that the bombing was done by a skilled expert trying to pass the hit off as an amateur job. He had already talked to Lour, though, and the story checked out, unless they were both in it. They both had a decent motive—as did an underpaid supply officer and several others, but Spectre wasn’t quite ready to pin the blame on them until he had more concrete proof. Besides, there was one last name on his list. Spectre looked down at the pad and groaned softly.

“Send him in,” he called to the clone standing outside who was acting as a receptionist for the people he was questioning.

“Private Riggins reporting for—oh, it’s you. I mean, sir.”

“Have a seat, Private,” Spectre said wearily.

“What can I do for you, sir?” asked Riggins sullenly.

“Where were you at 1914 hours two local days ago?”

“Corporal Halsk and I were on guard duty at the command center.”

“What precautions were you taking to ensure the safety of the center?”

“About the time of the blast, I was walking around the center checking for possible threats, per procedure, while Halsk was in the guardhouse.”

“Did you find anything?”

“Not until the blast went off and a piece of ferrocrete hit me in the head.”

Riggins indicated the bandage wrapped around his head.

“Do you have any reason to disapprove of the Empire’s presence on Tellanroaeg?”

“Hmph,” Riggins snorted.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Answer the question.”

“It means that I don’t feel like getting punched or punished for answering that question, sir,” Riggins spat.

“You may speak freely,” Spectre said.

“Sure, I’ve got a reason to dislike the Empire’s presence on Tellanroaeg, and I’m looking right at it. A whole bunch of faceless bucketheads bossing us around like you run the planet. Not to mention that you didn’t do anything for my sick daughter and she died because it was wrong to ‘allocate military resources for civilians.’ Boy, they did a good job when they hauled you guys out of the cloning tanks. They remove your hearts, too?”

“That’s enough, Riggins. You’ve answered the question. I just have one more.”

“I’m floating on repulsors and jet packs waiting for it, sir.”

Riggins’s expression suggested he was anything but that.

“Do you have any experience in demolitions?”

“Hmmmm, let me think about this one. I did spend a couple mornings being yelled at by a clone officer on how to properly use explosives to ‘neutralize hostiles.’ Then I blew up a couple targets to show that I’d heard him correctly. So yes, you could say that I do, sir.”

Spectre was now thoroughly tired of questioning Riggins. The trooper was useless, and probably couldn’t properly handle an explosive if it came with instructions and a big red button. Only his bad attitude kept him on the suspects list.

“Thank you, Private. You’re dismissed.”

After Riggins left, Spectre looked down at his datapad. At this rate, he’d never figure out who had bombed the command post. His gut instinct told him it was someone who was familiar with base, not an outsider. The only problem was there were fourteen possibilities that had the resources, proper opportunity, and reason to detonate an explosive device. If only there was some way to check out the veracity of their stories, but with so many witnesses dead or injured, it would be impossible.

Spectre went for a walk, bringing his gear with him. There was no point in being uncomfortable in a stifling barracks when he was trying to think. He walked through the base, not really heading for anywhere in particular, trying to find a way to sift the guilty from the innocent. He stopped and realized he was standing next to the grave where he had buried the Jedi woman. He knelt down next to the crude stone marker where he had etched “Here lays a Jedi of the Republic.” Spectre sat by the rock, wracking his brains for a solution. There were just too many suspects and conflicting stories and way too many alibis that couldn’t be proven or disproven.

“I’ve heard Jedi could tell when someone was lying,” he said to the stone. “If that’s so, I wish you were still alive to help me. You could probably tell me who set off that bomb.”

Suddenly, an idea came to him. He sprinted back towards the barracks at full speed. There were preparations to be made.

Thirty minutes later, Spectre had assembled all fourteen of his suspects in a supply shed. Some of them looked surly, like Riggins. Some looked bewildered. The important thing was that they were all there.

“You all have seen me in the past few days investigating the attack on the command center. All of you are suspects.”

Spectre paused and noticed a good deal of surprise and angry murmuring, in addition to unpleasant looks directed towards him.

“I have one final test to investigate your truthfulness and ferret out the guilty person.”

“Is it going to be more productive than answering your questions?” asked the supply officer.

“Yes, it is,” said Spectre. “Whoever the bomber was made a mistake. The detonite he used was part of a supply lot marked with special dye for training purposes. The dye is invisible except when viewed in the infrared and activated by liquid dyothanol.”

Spectre wasn’t making these facts up, except that the detonite used by the bomber hadn’t been marked for training and that the dye didn’t need to be activated by dyothanol. A little judicious slicing of the official database had fixed that, though.

“I have up here on this table a bowl filled with dyothanol. I would like each of you to wash your hands in the bowl and then I will activate an infrared scanner. The guilty man’s hands will light up red. You may begin now.”

Spectre signaled for the glowpanels to be brought down and watched through his helmet’s low-light mode as each man went up to the bowl and washed his hands in the bowl. Then, signaling his trooper aide again, he activated the infrared light.

“Raise your hands, please,” he said.

They all complied, but no one’s skin glowed.

“Looks like you got the wrong people,” said Narson.

A wave of irritated murmuring washed over the group.

“I would agree with you,” Spectre said, “If all of you washed your hands, that is. Dyothanol doesn’t activate training dye. It turns your hands green.”

Spectre gave his aide one last signal, and the trooper switched on the glowpanels. Thirteen pairs of green hands could be seen, and one normal flesh-colored pair.

“It’s over, Riggins,” Spectre said.

His blaster was suddenly out and pointed at Riggins.

“Why did you do it?”

Riggins was absolutely livid.

“You killed my daughter!” he screamed. “You made us all suffer and bleed and die for you, and you couldn’t even spare my little girl! But now you suffer, don’t you, buckethead?”

Then strong arms pinioned Riggins and took him away, still screaming.

“You are dismissed,” Spectre said to the rest.

Spectre gave his report to the major in charge, and then returned to his quarters. Capturing the bomber had been his duty, and he had been proud to do it, but he expected no reward for doing it. The black mark on his record would still keep him from advancing in the military. Still, he felt a fierce sense of accomplishment at getting some of his own back. Tired from his labors, sleep came easily to him that night.

Bespin

Exhausted and exhilarated after their festive evening, the crew of the Hawk-bat returned back to the spaceport a little after midnight, local time. Selu, who had been less inebriated than Jorge or Captain R’hask, had flown the airspeeder back, and the five staggered onto the ship. They made short work in heading for their cabins, aware of their early start the next morning.

As morning broke, the crew wearily went to their stations, Sarth fighting off a large hangover. Cassi reported that their cargo of carbon-frozen Tibanna cylinders was loaded and secured, so Selu lifted off the landing pad and headed for space. Once Bespin was a large colored orb behind him, Selu decided to ask the captain their destination.

“Where to, Captain?”

“Oh, let’s go to Corellia,” said Captain R’hask.

Somewhat surprised by his captain’s haphazard choice of destinations, Selu nevertheless laid in a course for Corellia and the Hawk-bat slid into the blue oblivion of hyperspace. The trip was smooth, and the ship reverted into realspace easily upon arrival. The Hawk-bat cruised towards the Corellian system on a trail of blue ion exhaust, and Selu relaxed. Controlling the ship was getting easier every time he did it.

Suddenly, he was startled out of his introspection by the appearance of a quartet of small ships on an intercept course on his sensor screen. The more he watched them, the more his danger sense screamed a warning at him.

“This is Cap’n Tuq Lanfud of the Bonerattler. Heave to, and prepare for company, else be blasted into space dust,” crackled the comm board.

“Never, Lanfud!” snarled Captain R’hask, shutting off the comm. “Battle stations!”

Selu immediately raised the shields as the four ships began spitting laser bolts at the freighter.

“Looks like two Dagger fighters, a Skipray blastboat, and some sort of modified Corellian corvette!” called Jorge.

The ship shuddered as the pirates’ weapons began connecting with the ship. Sarth, R’hask, and Jorge sprang into action, heading for the turret control centers. Selu toggled the ship’s guns, and the four wing-mounted blisters opened up to reveal laser turrets capable of covering most of the ship.

Captain R’hask slid an earpiece into one furry ear.

“Aim for the Skipray, lads!” he called. “The corvette isn’t heavily armed.”

Selu put the ship into a flat-out spin, trying to throw off their smaller pursuit.

“I can’t shake ‘em!” Selu called.

“You’re going to have to!” said Jorge, spinning the yoke to traverse his cannon around after a Dagger.

Several bolts managed to hit the Skipray, causing it break off pursuit. However, space near them was still filled with three hostile ships pasting the Hawk-bat with laser fire and evading the purple return fire.

Unlike some ships, the Hawk-bat’s turrets were remotely powered, as there was no way to arrange them without making the lasers protrude more obviously than desired by the owner. Instead, the gunners controlled their turret via a control console located in the ship’s wings. Happily, this meant that the gunner might not necessarily be killed by the destruction of the turret, but also limited their visibility to what was on a screen or sensor board.

Selu looked at the fire control board and found that turrets one, two, and four were occupied and he patched Sarth’s targeting droid into turret three. Selu winced as the aft shields took a hit from the Skipray’s ion cannons. On four small screens, he could see the faces of each gunner as they tried to blast their pursuit. Suddenly, a fourth image appeared on the screen for turret three, in the shape of a Republic clone trooper.

“Spark here. Engaging enemy.”

Selu realized that Sarth hadn’t just made a program for running the turrets—he’d made an artificial intelligence.

“Fire at will . . . Spark,” Selu said. “All targets assumed to be hostile.”

“Copy that, sir.”

One of the red blips disappeared from his sensors and Selu’s data display indicated that turret three had destroyed one of the Daggers. However, damage warning lights began lighting up. Not good.

“Target destroyed, sir!” came Spark’s voice over the feed.

“Good job! There’s three more!” Selu shouted back.

Glancing at the rapidly decreasing shields, Selu changed tactics, hauling the ship around in as a tight a loop as possible and gunning the thrust output. He heard a faint scream as Cassi fell or was thrown around by the violent maneuver. Selu ignored it for the moment and flew straight at the Corellian corvette, opening up with his nose-mounted laser cannons. Courtesy of Sarth’s modifications, the bolts were a brilliant purple rather than the red, green, or blue that most energy weapons output, which Sarth had told him was due to higher energy output.

Selu watched as his bolts began connecting with the ship, but had little effect on the shields as the corvette was much larger than the freighter. However, another advantage of his attack run was that the Skipray on his tail couldn’t fire at him without worrying about hitting the corvette if he missed. Toggling one of the switches on the fire control board, he activated the hidden proton torpedo launcher. Captain R’hask had told him about this in their first battle drill en route to Bespin. He had scavenged the missile launcher and sensor package from a shot down ARC-170 fighter during the war and had a few less-than-legal modifications made to conceal its presence. As the firing port slid open, Selu armed two of the torpedoes, still firing bursts of laser cannon fire. As he approached, data finally came through on the corvette.

Originally a CEC CR70 design, it sported two quad laser cannons, one dorsal turbolaser, and a nose-mounted ion cannon for weapons. The sensor array began projecting engine readouts, thermal data, and shield projections, and Selu shifted his aim point towards one of the weaker points. However, the quad laser cannon turret on that corvette was doing some serious damage to his forward shield. Selu shifted more power to the shield and swooped in closer.

Rather than use the torpedo launcher’s targeting system, he let the Force guide his targeting, unleashing two brilliant blue orbs into the corvette at near-point blank range. The first torpedo detonated on the hazy shields of the corvette, overloading them as they tried to dissipate all the energy unleashed on them. The second torpedo sailed through the gap in the shields and detonated amidships, nearly blowing the quad laser turret off. The ship began venting atmosphere as the explosion tore open bulkheads and destroyed structural beams.

A flashing red light caught Selu’s attention and he swore. Apparently, the blast from the torpedoes had been enough to blow out his shields. Hopefully, the Hawk-bat had a tough hull. Selu jinked to starboard to avoid a set of laser blasts from the Dagger, but three ion cannon blasts from the Skipray connected with the drive section, and Selu’s carefully controlled evasive flight pattern was thrown into an uncontrolled tumbling as the maneuvering controls and vector plates were scrambled by the ion pulse.

“Stang!”

Selu shut down the malfunctioning components and tried to restart them, but it would be a minute before they responded. In the fast-paced chaos of space combat, that was a lifetime. The remaining Dagger came in on a strafing run, sending laser bolts into the neck of the ship while eluding returning fire. The bolts, though ablated by the ship’s hull, weakened it enough to cause several breaches, and air started leaking out. Selu turned and watched in horror as the blast door connecting the neck of the ship to the wings began sealing as the decompression alarm wailed.

Leaping up from the pilot’s seat, Selu sprinted towards the door at full speed, but was caught by the restraining straps that had secured him to the chair during the battle. He released them and ran for the door, but realized that he wouldn’t make it in time before the door closed. He threw himself into a flying leap towards the door as it closed the last centimeters shut closed, thudding painfully into it, gasping for breath. He didn’t know if there was a patch kit in the neck of the ship to seal the breaches, and he wouldn’t be able to find out it before the compartment depressurized. Falling to his knees, defeated, he began to see black spots and knew it wouldn’t be long.

Suddenly, the door whooshed open in a rush of air and Captain R’hask, wearing an oxygen mask, hauled Selu inside before sealing the door shut again.

“Thank-thank you, Captain,” Selu gasped. “You saved my life.”

R’hask helped him back to the crew’s lounge and draped him into one of the seats as he dashed back to the auxiliary controls to help Jorge pilot the ship.

“You’re one of us now, lad, and we look after our own,” he said.

“One of us now . . .” Selu said, feeling faint again.

“Cassi, hold that oxygen mask over him for awhile,” he ordered.

Cassi knelt down by him and placed an oxygen mask similar to R’hask’s over his face, supplying him with a supply of clean, cool air. Selu noted the gash on her head and realized it was probably from the violent maneuver he’d pulled earlier.

“Sarth and Jorge, patch that breach, and fast!” ordered Captain R’hask.

“Already on it, sir!”

Both men had clipped on mag-con shield belts used by starfighter pilots that kept a bubble of protective energy around them to seal in breathable air and Sarth grabbed a patch kit, heading up front into the depressurized cabin.

Sarth and Jorge, both experienced in null-gee repair, quickly slotted patches over the breaches, letting them contract to form an airtight seal over the damaged hull. It wouldn’t stand re-entry, but would last them long enough to find an orbital facility to dock in, which were plentiful in the Corellian system.

“Sorry about your head,” Selu said to Cassi through the mask.

“It’s no problem. I should’ve gone to battle stations faster.”

“First time in combat?”

“Yes.”

“It’s okay. At least we survived.”

“For now. Aren’t those pirates still out there?”

R’hask Sei’lar stood at the auxiliary control panel in the crew lounge that had been installed in case of this very situation. A look at the sensor board told him that the pirates were fleeing, but from what he wasn’t sure. His long-range sensors couldn’t tell him anything, as the ion pulse had completely scrambled the suite. Then the comm board crackled to life.

“Freighter Hawk-bat, this is the Corellian Security Force. Are you there? Do you need assistance?”

Sei’lar looked out and saw a modified Consular-class cruiser sitting outside, painted in the green and black color scheme of CorSec.

Hawk-bat here. We could use a tow back to a repair yard if you could manage that, Captain uh . . .”

“Horn. Hal Horn. We’d be happy to give you a lift.”

“Thank you, Captain Horn.”

Captain R’hask closed the channel.

“Took them long enough to get here,” he muttered.

The CorSec vessel towed the damaged Hawk-bat to a repair yard where they docked and the crew disembarked to inspect the damage. Unsurprisingly, Horn was there waiting for them at the dock.

“Inspector Hal Horn, here. Just have a few questions for you. Who’s the captain?”

“I am,” said Captain R’hask.

Horn got each crewmember’s story in turn—all of them careful to avoid mention of the illegal torpedo launcher—and then looked at his datapad.

“Ordinarily, there’d be some delay. We usually prefer you to stay in-system within easy reach until we’ve got proceedings underway, to see if we need you to testify against the pirates.”

Captain R’hask started to protest, but Horn raised a hand and continued.

“However, you’ve been extremely helpful, so we won’t bother with that. We’ve got copies of your sensor data and your testimony, and that should be enough. Just to let you know, you were attacked by a group of Bonestar pirates. We captured those left on the corvette, including a very unhappy Captain Lanfud, thanks to your flying. They’ve been wanted for some time now, and we got many of them, though the Skipray got away.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Oh, and there was a reward out for Lanfud. While we did apprehend him, I’ve noted that you certainly helped. Half of it will be added to your Imperial bank account, Captain. I’m sure it will cover your repairs here.”

“Thank you very much, Inspector,” said Captain R’hask.

After giving his statement to the CorSec officer, Selu returned to the others, where R’hask and Jorge were discussing repairs and Sarth was bandaging the gash on Cassi’s forehead

“Did the inspector give you any problems?” the captain asked. “I have friends in CorSec with a lot of pull if it comes to that.”

“No, not at all,” Selu replied. “Much less than, say, those pirates.”

Captain R’hask chuckled.

“They weren’t that much of a problem at all,” he replied. “As long as we worked together, they didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s what I like about being on the Hawk-bat,” Sarth said. “It’s like being in a family.”

Selu nodded, lost in his own thoughts at Sarth’s choice of word. Family. The word had just begun to take on significance for him in relation to his new occupation, and yet Selu was hopeful that he would be able to explore exactly what it meant to be part of the ship’s crew. It was antithetical to everything the Jedi had taught him about attachment, but Selu couldn’t deny that he already felt a bond with Sarth, who had found him, taken him in, and provided a new occupation for him. Even if he attempted to persuade himself otherwise, his protectiveness of Sarth during the Mistryl kidnapping attempt was glaring evidence to the contrary. As for the rest of the crew, Selu wasn’t sure how close he could get to them safely, but they had already saved him from asphyxiating in the pirate attack despite having only known him for a few days. He owed them at least a chance.

Fugitive he might be, and the loss of the Jedi Order would forever be etched in his memory, but the crew of the Hawk-bat had taken him in when he had nowhere else to go and nobody else to turn to. Selu had never imagined that he would be so violently severed from the Jedi, forced to make his own way in the galaxy and hunted like a criminal. The rise of the Empire and death of the Jedi had been the darkest hours of his life, and yet somehow, fate had seen fit to give him a new chance.

Though he was not yet at peace with the betrayal and destruction of the Jedi, his meeting with Sarth and the crew of the Hawk-bat gave him hope that good endured in the galaxy. In time, perhaps the grief at the loss of his former life, his friends, Skip, Serra, and all the rest would fade. In time, perhaps he could come to terms with his new identity as a roving spacer. Perhaps one day, he would live to see the Jedi Order reborn. They were faint hopes, but they stubbornly persisted inside Selu, refusing to give in and die just as Selu himself had refused to during the sack of the Jedi Temple. Until peace and order could be restored to the galaxy, that hope would have to suffice.

“Micor, we’ve got some downtime while the ship’s being repaired. Do you want to come get a bite to eat with us?” Jorge asked him, rousing him from his introspection. “If you’re feeling up to it, that is.”

Selu paused, unsure if he would be better off resting and using Jedi techniques to help him heal. Then, his musings on the crew of the Hawk-bat being his new family surfaced again and he assented. It was time for him to embrace his current identity rather than dwelling in the past.

“Sure,” he replied. “Better than sitting around here.”

The Bothan captain clapped him on the shoulder.

“You did real good up there,” he complimented Selu. “Mighty fine piloting.”

“Thank you,” Selu answered humbly. “Just trying to look out for the ship.”

“Not the ship,” the captain corrected him. “The crew. I love the Hawk-bat, but it’s the people inside her that make her truly special. A ship without a crew is like a person without a soul. We look out for each other first.”

“Aye, captain,” Selu said with a nod.

It was a strange feeling, being included so warmly by a group of relative strangers, but Selu found he rather liked it. Once again, he had a community to call his own and to care for, and for now, that was enough. As a hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, he joined the others and they left together.

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