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An angular malevolent wedge of metal and composites knifed through space riding a trail of hot ion exhaust. The blend of cold efficiency and braggadocio of the rising Empire was exemplified in the design of the Imperial Star Destroyer Engager, sent to the Outer Rim as part of the Empire’s tightening grip on the galaxy. Its holds were packed with military supplies, weapons, and gear, and thousands of ground troops, and there were a dozen smaller ships plugging along in its wake similarly loaded. Any potential threats to the convoy could be easily dealt with: Engager’s arrowhead hull carried enough firepower in its turbolasers and ion cannons to melt a planet’s surface or utterly demolish starships of all sizes.

Engager had a crew that was largely new to the class—the ships had not been in service long enough for many to accumulate experience among the new vessels and fresh crews were shipped to the vessels as each mass-produced warship glided out of spacedock. However, its complement of ground troops were largely veterans of the Outer Rim sieges, as Engager’s mission was to relieve and replace garrisons across the Outer Rim with fresh troops and supplies. So far, it had been to Saluecami, Mygeeto, and Tellanroaeg. Now, the mighty Star Destroyer stopped at Boz Pity, a key Imperial hub in the Mid Rim, where the fate of some of its troops was to be decided.

In one of the larger hangars, its floor freshly polished and rigid lines undimmed by use or stains, stood a number of hard-bitten fighting men, assembled for a common purpose. Each of them was once identical in genetics and appearance, but the scars and experiences of war had changed them to something slightly different. Old before their time, they had each been on a dozen battlefields, from Kamino to Coruscant. They were the very best of the best, the Advance Reconnaissance Commandos. Standing next to a desk with an aide nearby looking at a datapad, Imperial Captain Bolnir addressed these men. He was not a clone of Jango Fett, as they were, but a native of Ralltiir who volunteered for service in the navy near the war’s end, and still felt slightly out of place commanding units of largely identical soldiers who mostly had numbers instead of names.

“Men, first let me offer you the Emperor’s thanks for your dedicated service to the Empire. Your government thanks you for your wartime service. Because of you, there are millions of people who have lived safer, happier lives without ever seeing battle on their worlds. Thousands of your brothers live because you accomplished missions that were thought impossible. For that, you are all to be commended.”

The ARCs nodded their agreement, and Bolnir recognized the pride in each one of them at their accomplishments, pride that each one of them had earned through blood and sweat and pain.

“As compensation for your loyal service, the Empire offers you two choices. The first is retirement from the Imperial military, to lead a law-abiding civilian life, with retirement pay and some benefits. Don’t spend your pension in one place, either. The second is to continue in the Imperial military, but not as front-line soldiers or even commandos. Your time on the frontlines is over. Now, your skills must be passed on to others who will fill the ranks of the military. As drill instructors on places such as Carida, you will impart the knowledge, the lessons you learned, to new recruits.”

Bolnir paused to take in the reactions of the seven men standing before him. He might as well have been looking at granite blocks for all the response he received. After letting his words sink in for a moment, he cleared his throat and continued.

“As I call your operating number, please step forward and indicate your choice. The decision is final. Those who wish to serve as drill instructors will return to your quarters and await reassignment. Any who choose retirement will report to Lieutenant Nhor for further instructions.”

“Alpha-67.”

“Drill instructor, sir.”

“Alpha-14.”

“Instructor, sir.”

“Alpha-50.”

“Instructor, sir.”

“Alpha-21.”

“Retirement, sir. I’m tired of getting blown up.”

“Alpha-09.”

“Trainer, sir.”

“Alpha-81.”

“Instructor, sir.”

“Alpha-28.”

Alpha-28, commonly known as Spectre, stepped up to the desk. As the names of each of his brothers had been called, he had been thinking of his response. It didn’t take him long. Spectre already knew that he no longer wanted to serve in the military. The execution of Order 66, the command to terminate the Jedi Order, had bothered him, and his comments to a clone commander named Trip had earned him a black mark on his record for insubordination. His saving of several lives in a bombing attack and his later capture of the bomber had earned him a medal from the major in charge while Trip had been incapacitated, injured by the blast, but had done nothing to clear his name. As he saw the military become increasingly political as part of Imperialization, Spectre knew he wanted nothing to do with it. The only thing that concerned him was that he had no idea what he would do with his future. However, his mind was made up. He looked Captain Bolnir in the eye.

“Retirement, sir.”

A few hours later, after sharing one last round of drinks and farewells with his brothers, Spectre reported to the armory along with Alpha-21, who was usually known as Twone, where he turned in his battered suit of armor and the lethal assortment of weaponry that he habitually wore. It felt strange for him to be not in armor while on duty. Out in the field, clone troopers were almost never out of armor. Spectre glanced at Twone’s scarred, chiseled face, and imagined the other ARC felt the same way. Spectre entered his service number into the screen for equipment use, where the transaction would be carried into the massive Imperial military databases, an obscure piece of information that proved that one suit of armor, one WESTAR-5M blaster rifle, two DC-17 sidearms, one ten-centimeter vibroblade, one fragmentation grenade, and ten power packs for the weapons were returned, in reasonably decent condition, by retiring ARC Captain Alpha-28. Spectre turned and left the armory, heading down the maze of corridors to the personnel office, where he and Twone each received a large credit voucher and civilian identichips from the officer there.

“Please enter your service number here,” the officer said.

The two troopers did so.

“You are henceforth discharged from the Imperial Army, effective immediately,” continued the officer. “There is a transport contracted to take you down to Boz Pity’s service.”

“How much are the credit vouchers worth?” asked Twone.

“5,000 standard credits.”

“Not bad,” remarked Spectre.

“No, indeed,” said Twone. “See you at the transport, Spectre.”

Spectre whistled softly. Five thousand credits were enough to make a decent start. It wasn’t a fortune by any means, but the retirement pay of 300 creds per standard month would help bolster that. He and Twone saluted the officer one last time and returned to their quarters to pack their few belonging.

Spectre opened the small chest that belonged to him and checked its contents. Ordinarily, there was very little that wasn’t practical, but one item in the bottom caught his eye. Unfolding a small cloth covering a disk-shaped object, Spectre found himself looking at a piece of a speeder control with the emblem of the Jedi Order etched into it. He remembered when he first received the medallion—during his first tour of duty on Boz Pity, after rescuing the Jedi Padawan Selusda Kraen. They had bonded on the battlefield, only to be separated by the demands of war. Spectre wondered where Selu was now, and then realized he didn’t want to know. The Jedi was probably a corpse, a casualty of Order 66 and the Jedi treachery. That was one of the reasons that Spectre had no desire to be in the army anymore. Killing one’s generals and commanders never stood well with him, especially since he’d never seen any proof of the treason. Spectre, like all ARCs, was more independent-minded than the average clone trooper, and was proud of that fact. Something about the whole Jedi rebellion had never sat well with him, but he knew that any inquiries would be strongly discouraged and pointless. Without any proof either of the Jedi’s culpability or innocence and little chance of uncovering the truth, Spectre had been forced to ignore the lingering feeling of wrongness on the subject as best he could.

Spectre replaced the medallion and closed the chest, shoving it inside his carrybag. It was time to be off. The transport would leave soon, and the faster he was out of the army, the faster he could figure out what he going to do in his civilian life. The military had been his life since literally before he was born, and now that he was leaving it, the future suddenly seemed more uncertain. He walked through the polished, orderly corridors of the Star Destroyer to the main hangar, where a smallish civilian freighter was waiting to take a party of khaki-clad Imperial officers down to the planet, probably for leave since official business would mean that they would use an Imperial shuttle, and take him and Twone down to Boz Pity’s surface.

A curious sight greeted him as he prepared to board the transport: a clone trooper in full armor waiting for them. Spectre soon recognized the officer: Commander Trip. Spectre had avoided Trip for some time, ever since Tellanroaeg, but apparently Trip had come to seek him out. He walked towards the transport, hoping that Trip wanted to talk to Twone, but Trip stopped him.

“Alpha-28.”

Spectre stopped automatically and nearly saluted, but remembered at the last instant that he wasn’t in the military anymore. His hand dropped to his side.

“I don’t have that designation anymore,” he said to Trip.

“Spectre, then. I heard you were leaving the army,” Trip responded evenly.

“You heard correctly,” Spectre said, resisting the compulsion to add “sir” to the end of his statement.

“I can’t say I’m horribly surprised by that.”

“Is that so?”

Spectre was not in the mood to be baited by Trip, and this conversation was going nowhere.

“I just wanted to thank you for saving my life back on Tellanroaeg, Spectre. I finally found out that it was you who carried me out of the fire. Even if you were insolent and trouble-causing, you were a good trooper. Safe flight.”

“Thank you,” Spectre said neutrally, his stolid face not betraying any emotion.

A lot of good Trip’s gratitude would do him now. Turning, he nodded and left, joining Twone, walking across the hangar towards the transport.

Boarding the freighter, Spectre noticed immediately its somewhat dilapidated condition and groaned, figuring it was going to be an unpleasant ride down to the surface. Unfortunately for him and Twone, he was correct.

Duro

Selusda Kraen wove the Hawk-bat through the lanes of traffic flowing through Duro’s orbital cities. The light freighter, roughly shaped like its organic namesakes that inhabited Coruscant, was a powerful, graceful craft, and responded well to its handler’s touch. Duro was just the latest destination for Selusda and the rest of the crew on the freelance trading craft. Selusda, or more typically Selu, was alone on the bridge, as the others were in the aft of the ship. Captain R’hask Sei’lar and his first mate Jorgesoll Knrr were in the hidden gun turrets standing watch for hostile ships, since Duro had recently become a frequent target for pirate depredations. Sarth Kraen, the ship’s engineer and Selu’s brother, was in the engineering station while the junior cargomaster Cassi Trealus stayed in the hold, making last-minute checks on the cargo. Ever since half a hold full of nerf meat had spoiled en route to Bestine due to their supplier providing faulty storage containers, costing them thousands of credits, Captain R’hask had insisted that Cassi check the cargo more thoroughly and make sure it was secured. Though they were only carrying scrap metal, R’hask didn’t want anything to go wrong.

Selu found that his solitude was indicative of his time with the Hawk-bat in general. He had stayed largely aloof from the others, aside from Sarth, except on a few rare occasions where he came out of his reserved shell. He was sure the other three crewmembers noticed, but he didn’t care. He would do his job and do it well, but he had no desire to grow too friendly with the crew or too trusting. It could be deadly, as Selu had once been a Jedi, the one-time guardians of peace and justice.

That had been a lifetime ago, and then the Empire had purged the Jedi, killing as many as possible. Selu had barely escaped the slaughter at the Jedi Temple with his life, but he had lost everything and everyone important to him that evening. Still wracked with grief even several months after his escape, sometimes it was all he could do to outwardly maintain his composure. Out of all the crew, only Sarth knew his background, and even his real name. Instead of his given name, Selu now went by Micor. While the captain didn’t have the extraordinary memory retention rate that Sarth and Selu possessed, he still might recall that Sarth had once had a Jedi brother named Selusda. However, a pilot cousin would never be suspected, so that was Selu’s identity.

“Where to this time, Captain?” Selu inquired over the ship’s intercom.

R’hask had a somewhat random method of choosing destinations when they didn’t have a specific buyer lined up on another world, and it had taken some getting used on Selu’s part.

“Chart a course for Commenor, Micor,” said Captain R’hask. “We should get a good return for our cargo there.”

Selu punched in the coordinates and prepared to activate the hyperdrive. Inwardly, he was excited and apprehensive about flying to Commenor. It was his homeworld, where the biological parents he’d never truly met lived. Would they want to meet him? He was unsure, but the prospect was tantalizing, filling with anticipation.

The hyperdrive activated, and the starlines engulfed the Hawk-bat as it jumped into hyperspace. The trip would last several days, and there wasn’t much for Selu to do—hyperspace between Duro and Commenor was fairly clear, unlike much of the Outer Rim or the Deep Core. He checked the ship’s chrono and found that he only had a few time parts before Jorge, an affable, brawny man from Corellia, had watch on the ship’s bridge. Soon enough, he spied the first mate coming forward, and Selu left the pilot’s station as Jorge took over. Heading back to the wings of the ship where the crew quarters, engine, and hold were located, Selu entered the crew lounge and found Sarth and Cassi watching a holodrama on a small projector in the lounge. With nothing better to do, he decided to join them.

“Where are we off to?” asked Cassi.

Apparently, she hadn’t had the intercom panel in the hold on or hadn’t been listening to it.

“Captain R’hask has us bound for Commenor,” said Selu. “We’ll be there in a few days.”

There was no need to say anything else, so he didn’t. Selu gave his brother a look, and Sarth nodded. Later, they would plan a reunion between Selu and his parents—something they had discussed more than once before in the privacy of their quarters. For now, though, the two sat back and watched the holo. After a week of work on Duro, they finally had a chance to relax a bit while the ship was in hyperspace. Sarth leaned back in his chair, watching as the hero of the holodrama evaded capture by a group of Twi’lek pirates who were trying to get his wealthy girlfriend to pay a large ransom for his release. Next to him, Cassi’s attention was similarly focused on the screen; though Sarth wished she would pay him half of the attention she showed the holodrama. He’d never been a social person when he was growing up, as his studies took all his time, but he kept finding himself strangely attracted to the junior quartermaster. He’d told Selu about it and his brother had sympathized, although in all probability Selu knew even less about women than he did in terms of relationships. Sarth also knew that his older brother was still distracted and grieving from the loss of the Jedi Order, and so hadn’t tried to draw him out much, thinking it better to let the matter be.

Although his mind threatened to wander off back to technical schematics of the power conduit he wanted to overhaul, he kept his attention on the holodrama. Even he needed a break from work, and the multitude of short hops between orbital cities and micrometeorite hits they had taken while near Duro had given him plenty to do. And since he couldn’t just pop outside the craft while in hyperspace in an EV suit to check it out, it would have to wait.

Meanwhile, Captain R’hask Sei’lar stood up in the bridge of the ship, awaiting his first mate to return from checking on the other crewmembers. Finally, he saw Jorge’s large frame in the corridor connecting the bridge to the rest of the ship.

“Are they still back there?” R’hask asked shortly.

“Aye, Captain. We’re alone up here.”

“Good. Did you get everything stowed away?”

“Yessir, I did.”

“And Cassi doesn’t know anything about, right?”

“Not a bit, Captain. She saw the cargo manifest listed as scrap metal and thought nothing of it. It’s a good thing she’s cargo master, and not Micor.”

“Why’s that, Jorge?” asked the Bothan.

“Micor’s a good pilot, don’t get me wrong. Better than me, even. There’s just one thing that bothers me about him: he’s too good.”

“Too good?”

“Aye, Captain. Remember that pirate attack?”

“Those scum that tried to hit us over Corellia? Sure, I remember them.”

“Micor flew the ship like he knew what he was doing, setting up firing angles, attacking that pirate corvette.”

“Mmm, you’re right. There’s no way he picked that up in the one battle drill we did. And he said he’s qualified on starfighters.”

“Have you seen his weapon?”

“Yes, I have. Now that you mention it—that’s a Republic military-issue sidearm.”

“Exactly. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Micor is or was Republic military.”

“He didn’t mention that.”

“We didn’t ask.”

“In any case, we better keep this deal quiet.”

“Fine then, once we get the information we need on Commenor, we’ll just ditch him, and Sarth too. Make the arrangements, but wait until after we leave Commenor to activate them.”

“Sure thing, Captain.”

R’hask’s slightly worried expression and barely rippling fur were replaced by a calm smile as Jorge headed aft. All they had to do was make sure there were no loose ends in the deal they were brokering, and it would run just as they had planned.

Commenor Central Lower Court

“Now, Mr. Silask, you had been told you were going to lose your job by Mr. Kyslor and Mr. Mord’lya, weren’t you?”

The well-dressed human glared down his sharp nose at the clerk sitting meekly on a chair.

“Yes, I was aware of that,” replied the graying older man nervously.

Then again, being confronted by one of the toughest defense attorneys on Commenor could scare any clerk turned witness into losing his carefully-rehearsed testimony against a powerful land-developing firm.

“And you told Mr. Kyslor that you’d ‘make him pay’ for this. That’s what you said in your affidavit, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I told him I’d make him—,”

“So you threatened to get him, didn’t you?”

The sharp-nosed lawyer was in his element now, pacing in front of the witness stand like a predator stalking his prey.

“I-I-I, uh . . .”

“And Mr. Kyslor informed you that the loss of your job had nothing to do with the charges you were bringing against him, didn’t he?”

“Objection.”

A voice, cool as a frozen asteroid and firm as durasteel, stopped the lawyer before the clerk could respond.

“This question calls for hearsay, your Honor.”

“Sustained. Next question, counselor,” said a bored-looking judge with a wave of his pudgy hand.

The lawyer turned and, for an instant, glared at the source of that voice, then turned back to his questions.

“You don’t have any physical evidence of Mr. Kyslor’s supposed wrongdoing, do you?”

“Well, no, I don’t. When I went—“

“So your testimony in court, is sort of pointless, isn’t it?” said the lawyer with a cruel smile.

“Objection. Your Honor, kindly ask the counselor to stop badgering my witness.”

Once again, the implacable voice stopped the lawyer dead in his tracks.

“Sustained,” wheezed the judge.

“No further questions, Your Honor,” said the sharp-nosed lawyer.

“Any re-direct, counselor Kraen?”

“Just a short one, Your Honor.”

Rising, the other man took his place at the lectern.

“Mr. Silask. What were you referring to when you said you’d make Mr. Kyslor pay?”

“Objection! Speculation!” thundered the sharp-nosed lawyer, standing up abruptly.

“Your Honor, it goes to the witness’s intent and state of mind. We offer it as evidence of the witness’s intent when he wrote that portion of his affidavit.”

“Overruled.”

“I’ll ask the question again. Mr. Silask, what were you referring to when you said you’d make Mr. Kyslor pay?”

“I was referring to all the money he cheated those surveyors out of when he claimed their maps were useless.”

“How do you know he cheated the surveyors?”

“I saw their maps in the record room after he refused to buy them.”

“Are you certain they were the right maps?”

“Yes, I am. I asked Mr. Kyslor about those specific maps: 541-A-167 and 541-A-168.”

“What did his response indicate to you?”

“It was quite clear to me that he was fully aware that we had the maps in our data files.”

“What, if anything, happened to you after you confronted Mr. Kyslor?”

“I was told I was being fired.”

“No further questions, your Honor.”

“Any re-cross?” asked the judge.

“No, Your Honor,” said the first lawyer irritably.

“The witness may step down. This court is adjourned. Trial will reconvene in a week,” the judge intoned.

As the witness stepped down, Samtel Kraen went up and offered him a glass of water and a few words of encouragement before he left. Returning to his attorney’s table, he packed up his case, conferred briefly with his aide, straightened his coat, and walked out the door. It had been a long day in court, and he was eager to go home. The land-grabbing case had turned out to be a mess to prosecute, and the defense was using every trick there was to block important testimony—not a surprise in the least.

Exiting the tall, imposing courtroom, Samtel headed for his speeder and drove off. Weaving his way through evening traffic, he soon pulled up in front of the University of Commenor’s mathematics building; a difficult feat considered the large number of students walking or flying speeders through the campus. He parked by the building, waiting for his wife to emerge from her class.

University of Commenor

“As you can see on the holoprojector, the factorial derivation of the S’locca series can be computed using Granith’s Theorem. Be sure to make sure you are operating with the equations for the appropriate sequence of complexity or super-complexity, or your data will be represented in the wrong number of dimensions. Any questions? No? Then class is dismissed. See all of you next week.”

Lena Kraen dismissed the class and watched as her several dozen students filed out of the room, relieved to have survived another day of multi-dimensional mathematics. Closing down the holoprojector, she tucked her books into a leather case and headed for the door, dimming the glowpanels before she left.

Walking through the decorated halls of the mathematics building, she headed towards the parking area where her husband would be waiting. No longer young, she still walked briskly and with a vibrant energy undimmed by the passing of over four decades. Greeting students and faculty friends on the way, the overhead glowpanels on the street were activated by the time she reached the speeder parking lot. It would be fully dark by the time she and Samtel returned to their home outside of Munto.

Walking up to where her husband sat in their speeder waiting for her, she got in and they sped back towards their home. On the way, they shared the experiences of the day with each other, as they had done for many years now, a comfortable daily ritual. Ever since Sarth had left for school, their household had diminished to just her, her husband, and NineSee, their servant droid, a gift from Sarth. The kilometers flew by, though by the time they arrived at their property, the stars were visible in the ebony blackness of the night and Folor and Brelor were both visible, with Folor a sliver of a crescent and Brelor half-full, bathing their decently sized estate in silvery light. Only a single story, it was of a comfortable size for them, and a large round high-ceilinged sitting room dominated the view from the road, with the kitchen, bedrooms, and other rooms adjoining from the main hall towards the rear of the dwelling. As they approached, Samtel slowed the speeder to a stop before they reached their small enclosed garage.

“There’s a strange speeder here.”

“Maybe it’s Sarth,” said Lena.

“Might be. Might not be. Never hurts to be careful,” replied Samtel.

Reaching into a compartment under his seat, he pulled out a small blaster pistol, a relic from a previous life many years past.

“Stay here, Lena,” ordered Samtel. “I’m going to check it out.”

“Samtel,” she started, but he held up a hand to forestall an argument.

“I need you out here to call for help if it comes to that,” he said.

Unhappy but understanding the wisdom in his direction, Lena nodded.

Turning, Samtel advanced towards the house, weapon at the ready. Cautiously, he examined the front door and found it to still be locked. He unlocked it and it slid open. Stepping inside, he found the house lights dimmed instead of off like they normally were in their absence. Furthermore, two men were sitting in the main room’s couches. In the dim light, he recognized one of them as his son Sarth and though he wasn’t sure on the identity of the other one, he figured it was one of his crewmates. Samtel set the blaster down on a small table and flicked on the glowpanels. Upon seeing the visage of the other man in better light, his eyes widened, and he was rendered totally speechless from astonishment.

2Edit

Boz Pity

Spectre grimaced. There were few jobs available on Boz Pity for men of his and Twone’s skills, and civilian life was turning out to be more difficult than he had thought possible. In the army, everything was structured and clear, whereas civilian life was chaotic and unruly. Plus, he missed his armor and weapons. He and Twone had stuck together upon landing on Boz Pity, and though both now carried sidearms, KYD-21 blaster pistols that they had bought, neither felt as comfortable as they would have in full armor and loaded down with kit. He perceived that he and Twone were somewhat of a curiosity—two clones in civilian garb—to the others around him, which only added to their discomfort.

“So, where to now?” Twone asked.

“I’m not sure,” Spectre replied.

“We should probably find a place to stay for the evening.”

“Right.”

That was another thing that would take getting used to. In the army, food and accommodations were either provided or they weren’t. Not so in civilian life. Now they had to search for food and lodging for the evening. The two ex-troopers managed to find a decent spacer’s lodge to stay in for the night and ate at the local restaurant.

“How’s your food?” asked Spectre.

Twone looked down at his bantha steak.

“Tough, and a bit greasy, but very edible,” he remarked.

“Mine too,” said Spectre. “The tubers are nicely flavored, though.”

“I hear those are grown locally,” said Twone. “Something of a specialty around here.”

Spectre nodded, and the two finished their meal. Their bellies full, they walked around the spaceport looking for job opportunities or other curiosities, exploring the environment. One pickpocket was foolish enough to try picking Twone’s pocket, but Twone was easy on him, only breaking one of his fingers. After that, the street riffraff gave them a wide berth. Finally, several hours after nightfall, they returned to their lodging. Ignoring the blaster scars and detritus lying around the entrance, the two secured the door and slept soundly for several hours. They had had many worse nights while in the army, and it was a relief to have some decent rest.

The next morning, the two rose early and went for breakfast in the same restaurant.

“Spectre, our creds won’t last us forever,” said Twone.

“You’re right, they won’t. Our retirement pay isn’t that much, either. We’ll need to find jobs.”

“Doing what?”

“I’m not sure. What kind of skills do you have?”

“Let’s see. Skills: Shooting, blasting, breaking, destroying things. Piloting military-grade speeders and vehicles. Being able to kill almost any type of sentient creature. Real applicable to civilian life,” replied Twone sarcastically.

Spectre snorted gently.

“You have a point. Our lives haven’t exactly prepared us for this moment.”

“Maybe we’ll get hired by a pirate group,” said Twone. “Then I can wear an eye patch and grow my hair out long.”

Spectre rolled his eyes at the joke.

“On the other hand, you might be onto something.”

“You want to join a pirate group? You should go easy on the local liquor, Spectre.”

“No—not a pirate group, but a security organization or police force might like having us around.”

“That’s not a bad idea. Let’s check it out, see if there are any wanted ads for security companies or police forces.”

“Will do. Meet you back here at 1200?”

“Right.”

The two separated, each heading in different directions to see if they could spot an opportunity. This was the type of mission ARCs were trained for: lone operations, acting independently, looking for opportunities on which to capitalize. They weren’t performing the normal actions that accompanied such missions, but that also meant people weren’t trying to kill them.

By the time he’d talked to four different potential employers, Spectre was tired and discouraged. No one seemed interested in hiring ex-troopers. Walking through the dusty, narrow streets of the town, Spectre headed back to the lodging to wait for Twone. Hopefully, the other ARC would have better luck in finding them employment.

“Spectre, think fast!” Twone called, tossing something at Spectre.

Spectre turned and caught the object, which turned out to be a datapad. From Twone’s fractional smile, Spectre concluded that he had good news.

“What’s new?” he asked.

“I’ve got an offer. It’s offworld, so I hope you don’t have an attachment to Boz Pity.”

“Not exactly,” Spectre said dryly.

The last time he was here, he had nearly been blown up by a droid gunship.

“Good.”

“What’s the job?”

“Private security stuff. Mostly contracted out. You, I, and maybe some others depending on the job, working on a team to guard bank shipments, maybe a celebrity or two. Could also be some investigative work. Company is called Durashield Securities.”

“I see. Where’s it located?”

“Coreward of here—Commenor. Are you in?”

Spectre considered for a minute.

“Don’t we have to prove our competence or something?”

“I already did.” Twone said, a bit sheepishly.

“What did you do?”

“They had one of their Devaronian bouncers attack me. I put him down cold with a Togorian hammer-punch and took his blaster.”

“So you smashed one of our future co-workers.”

“Spectre, we wouldn’t be future co-workers if I hadn’t. Anyway, it convinced them. Are you interested?”

Spectre thought about it, and then sighed.

“I don’t have anything better. I’m in.”

“Great. We leave tomorrow for Commenor.”

Commenor

Selusda Kraen had been waiting for his parents for about an hour. Upon landing and finishing their duties, Sarth had rented a speeder for him and had taken him out through Commenor’s countryside to his parent’s house. Sarth had told him that his parents were still working in Munto during the day, but would arrive near nightfall. He and Sarth had sat quietly in the sitting room, waiting. They were both tired—Captain R’hask kept the Hawk-bat on Coruscant time, and Commenor’s rotation was different—right now, it was early morning for both of them. When the speeder finally arrived, Selu suddenly realized that he didn’t know what he going to say to his parents. He was too young to remember them—his memory wasn’t fully developed when he’d been taken by the Jedi Order. He racked his mind trying to come up with something meaningful, but then the door slid open and his father entered. Standing as his father increased the intensity of the overhead glowpanels, he said the only thing he could think of. The word “father” stuck in his throat momentarily, but he was able to push past his hesitation and utter the unfamiliar noun.

“Hello . . . Father.”

“Selusda?!” Samtel finally gasped after several seconds of silent staring.

“It’s me,” said Selu simply.

“Lena, come in. Come quickly!” Samtel said urgently.

A minute later, Lena hurried in, her footsteps quickened by the urgency she heard in Samtel’s voice. Entering the house, she stopped short upon seeing Selu.

“Selu?” she asked breathlessly, her eyes widening in astonishment.

“Hello, Mother,” he said, the word falling from his lips with a little more ease.

“We thought you were dead,” she whispered hoarsely.

“No. I escaped. Sarth found me on Coruscant and eventually brought me here.”

Both parents ran and embraced their long-lost son, tears of joy streaking down both of their faces.

“You’ve grown so much since the last holo we saw of you,” Lena told him after several minutes.

“It’s so good to see you,” Selu said. “I imagine we have a lot to catch up on.”

Selu felt strange as they embraced him with surprising vigor. Their open outpouring of love was something he hadn’t learned with the Jedi. The idea of even having parents was new to him, for that matter, and was only beginning to sink in. While all the Jedi were supposed to respect and support each other, the ties between them had never been close enough to truly be considered parental, save between master and Padawan, and Selu knew his former Master Plo Koon was dead now. The Force showed him a vision of the Kel Dor dying in a cloud of flames on a distant world.

“I’m sorry I never had a chance to contact you before,” he said. “The Jedi Order didn’t allow contact with parents, and after it was . . . destroyed, I didn’t want to contact you for fear that the Empire was monitoring you.”

“It’s all right,” said Lena. “We knew the order wouldn’t let us near you when we gave you to them. It’s been hard for us, but we knew it was the right thing to do.”

“And the government hasn’t bothered with sending people to question us,” Samtel said. “They know that parents don’t speak with their children if they’ve been taken by the Jedi.”

Selu was relieved to know that he hadn’t placed his parents in danger.

“We’re so proud of you—our son, a Jedi Knight,” said Lena.

“Mother, I’m not a Jedi anymore,” Selu admitted. “The order is completely destroyed.”

“He’s right,” said Sarth, who had been standing by quietly. “He’s not anymore.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Being a Jedi isn’t something you can just stop doing.”

“Yes, it is,” Selu said. “It’s too dangerous, it’s a threat to my life, and it won’t solve anything.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” said Samtel. “I’m sure it’s been hard for you.”

“You have no idea,” Selu stated flatly.

He had no desire to discuss the attack on the Temple, and still hadn’t done so to anyone, even to Sarth.

“You’re right—I don’t,” Samtel said. “But being a Jedi, according to all the codes and such that the Jedi that came for you told us about, is not about carrying a lightsaber or living in the Temple or using the Force. Those are outward signs of being a Jedi. Your mother and I have always said that being a Jedi is about your actions, your character. As long as you help the oppressed, stand against evil, and be of sound character, you will, in some way, be a Jedi.”

“Thank you, Father,” Selu said, a bit stiffly.

His father was right, and Selu felt like he had just been reproved by Master Koon, a feeling he hadn’t felt in awhile.

“You don’t have to call me that if you’re not ready to,” Samtel said. “Depending on how comfortable you feel around us, you can call me Mr. Kraen if you’re not used to the idea of having parents, but when you are used to us, call me Dad. Your brother does.”

“That goes for me too,” said Lena.

“I’ll do that . . . Dad,” said Selu.

The word was still a bit awkward to him, but Lena covered for him by changing subjects.

“How long are you here?”

“We have to leave tomorrow evening, local time,” Sarth said. “Selu’s a pilot on the Hawk-bat now.”

“Really? I’m impressed,” she said. “You can stay here for the night and tomorrow until you have to leave. Oh, and Sarth, invite your captain and the rest of the crew for dinner tomorrow. I’d like to see Captain Sei’lar again, and your other shipmates also.”

“Sure thing, Mom,” Sarth said. “I’m sure the captain and Jorge would love to get some more of your cooking, and you’ll like Cassi too.”

“Is she new?”

“Yes, she is,” Sarth replied. “She’s the new cargomaster—she was hired the same time as Selu.”

“I see,” said Lena. “Is she pretty?”

“Mom,” Sarth said, rolling his eyes with mock anguish.

“I’m just looking out for my son’s welfare,” Lena remarked, smiling at Sarth playfully.

“I’m glad that both of our sons are home,” said Samtel.

“I know,” Lena said. “I thought this day might never come.”

At his parents’ urging, Selu gave them a brief recounting of his life in the order—brief being a couple hours. He told them of his childhood training, of being in the same clan with fellow Padawans Bairdon, Serra, and Skip, of his apprenticeship to Plo Koon. He recalled his friends Aubrie and Cal, the missions he performed as a Jedi, the battles of the Clone Wars: Brentaal IV, Rendili, Boz Pity, and Coruscant among others. He told them about his knighting, but of the raid on the temple, he said little, other than that it happened and he escaped. Since Sarth didn’t mention the kidnapping attempt, Selu decided not to mention that either. Instead, he skipped to the part where he joined the crew of the Hawk-bat, making sure to inform the parents of his alias and fake identity.

In return, his parents told him more about his family, some of which he had learned from Sarth, and some of which was completely new to him. His parents told him about his name—all the males in the Kraen family had a tradition of having names that began with Senth. Selu learned more about the origins of his parents and how they had lived while he had been in the order, including his mother’s career as a hyperspace scout in Wild Space and the Outer Rim, and his father’s work in mapping planets in the Outer Rim, and how they eventually started working together.

“It’s funny,” Lena said. “All this time, we mapped all those planets and routes years ago, and they probably never got used. Most of those places probably haven’t changed much since we were there.”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” said Samtel. “Fewer cases to litigate that way. You have no idea how many land-dispute cases I’m asked to take on. All that data from our ship that I kept when we made a new life might just come in handy one day. Your Captain R’hask is welcome to it if he ever has a need to go out that far into the edges of the galaxy.”

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that,” said Sarth.

The new reunited family spent many more hours discussing any number of topics, oblivious to the passage of time or the fact that they were being watched.

Outskirts of the Kraen estate

“That’s him alright,” said Vena D’ulyin to her partner, Sallas.

The two women were clad in black camouflage jumpsuits and hidden in the foliage of the trees surrounding the Kraen house, peering through a pair of electrobinoculars at the family sitting together.

“So do we take out the others one by one?” asked Sallas.

A dead shot with almost any type of rifle, Sallas was cradling a silent, long-range Verpine sniper rifle in her slender arms.

“I don’t know about that,” said Vena. “They might call for security, and there’s a small town that’s close enough to bring them help. The Kraen family is well-known and well-respected around here. Better to do it quickly and quietly. We’ll take them while they are sleeping.”

Sallas wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“Just because you like close-in work, we’re going to take them that way? Kraen has a pretty good bodyguard apparently, because he’s not given a high threat index, but Team One never reported in from Coruscant and he’s here now. I say we take them now, from range. Much safer that way.”

Vena, taller and brunette, looked down at her black-haired partner.

“No, we’re going to take them in close because it’s easier to contain the situation that way. I don’t want them to escape. We only have one decent rifle capable of hitting at long range, and you have it. It’s better that we move in and take them. Besides, I was put in charge.”

“Fine. We’ll do it your way, then,” grumbled Sallas, brushing some leaves off of her jumpsuit.

Later that evening

Finally, after hours of catching up with their children, Samtel and Lena called it a night. They both had already comlinked their workplaces, informing their respective offices that they wouldn’t be in the next day so that they could spend time with their returned relatives. Sarth and Selu, still used to ship’s time, stayed up a little longer.

“Why didn’t you tell them about the Mistryl?” asked Selu, referring to the kidnapping incident that had been conspicuously absent from the conversation earlier.

That incident had nearly claimed Sarth a few months back on Coruscant shortly after the two brothers had met. Only Selu’s intervention had stopped Sarth from being abducted by a pair of Mistryl Shadow Guards, a ruthless band of female mercenaries.

“I didn’t think it was necessary.”

“Really?” Selu said skeptically.

“They already have been worried about you for years. No need for them to worry about me also.”

“If you say so,” said Selu. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Just don’t tell them. At least, not until they absolutely need to know.”

“Sarth, they’re not going to stop chasing you.”

“Who? The Mistryl?”

“Yes. The Mistryl. They’re very determined, very professional. They’ll catch up sooner or later.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, and I don’t think they will. Logically, losing one team coming after me has to confuse them and make them slow down and rethink their approach.”

“That means the next team will be more prepared, more alert.”

“I still think we lost them. I’m not exactly a public figure, and we’ve been jumping from system to system over the last few months. They haven’t found us; otherwise they would have attacked by now.”

Sarth got up and stretched.

“I’m finally getting tired. I’m going to sleep, Selu.”

“I suppose I will, too,” Selu said.

“You know, I’ve noticed you stopped your meditations and such awhile back. You used to do that before you went to sleep. Why’d you stop?”

“It’s not much use anymore. I don’t need to use or be in touch with the Force, especially if the Empire has agents that can sense it in use. And besides, I’m not a Jedi anymore.”

“So if you’re not going to use the Force, how are you going to protect me from the Mistryl?” Sarth asked pointedly.

“I suppose my dazzling wit and charm will have to suffice in place of my lightsaber, which is back on the Hawk-bat anyway.”

“That’s very reassuring,” muttered Sarth.

“Shouldn’t it be? After all, you’re the one who said the Mistryl had lost your trail,” Selu shot back.

The two brothers headed for their respective bedrooms, which had been prepared for them by NineSee while the Kraens talked.

“Do you need anything else, Masters Kraen?” asked the droid.

“No, NineSee. Just some sleep,” said Sarth, yawning.

“No thank you, NineSee,” Selu similarly answered.

Selu had just settled into the first real bed he had slept in since living in the temple—he was too sparing with his money to spend it on hotels when they were in spaceports, as were most of the Hawk-bat’s crew—when he heard a slight noise outside. He got up and checked the rest of the rooms in the house, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He returned to his room and tried to sleep, but it did not come easily to him. His danger sense was tingling with a warning but he didn’t perceive immediate danger.

Belying his earlier words to Sarth, he set himself in a meditative posture and began trying to immerse himself in the currents of the Force. It had been some time since he had done so, ever since he’d received the vision of Plo Koon’s death, and he had found a strange peace in not using the Force. Ship life was too crowded and busy for him to meditate much, and he hadn’t wanted to anyway. Not connecting with the Force had kept him from feeling the pain and loss that doing so always brought.

He closed his eyes and extended his senses, first to the immediate area, then beyond. He sensed Sarth sleeping gently in the next room, and then Lena’s and Samtel’s presences, and then beyond the estate. Suddenly, he detected two more beings—human, he was certain—moving toward them. He sat up straight, his eyes jarring open.

Stealthily, he slipped over to the closet, which had a door on either side, one in his and one in Sarth’s room. Sneaking through the closet would give him the advantage of being out of the main hall and would make less noise. Creeping up to Sarth’s bed, he planted one hand over Sarth’s mouth and shook him awake.

“Shhh. I think we have intruders, Sarth,” hissed Selu, pulling his hand away from Sarth's mouth.

“Are you sure?” Sarth said, wide-eyed.

“Do you want me to go ask them politely?”

“Point. What do we do?”

“Take Samtel’s blaster and go wake the parents. Stay together in their room, no matter what,” Selu ordered.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to greet our friends out there. Do we have any other weapons?”

“Dad keeps a Stokhli spray stick in a drawer in the main room.”

“Where did he get that?”

“He had a client who was a big game hunter trying to create a game preserve. Dad believed in him enough to take it pro bono, won the case and the man gave him the stick as a gift instead of a fee, because he couldn’t afford it.”

“I see,” Selu answered, shaking his head in surprise at the colorful background of his parents that he was increasingly discovering.

“Be careful,” Sarth said.

“Of course,” Selu replied, and then he slipped off into the main hall as quietly as possible.

He tried to summon a concealing bubble of Force energy around him to camouflage himself, but even trying to use the technique was exhausting, and he settled for the appearance of a hazy mist over him to cover his movements. It wasn’t perfect, but apparently he was too out of practice in camouflaging himself to use the technique, which had been difficult enough even when he was constantly practicing. Selu reached the drawer and grabbed the stun stick, checking its load. He was relieved to find that it still had plenty of its liquid netting inside. A soft noise at the door distracted him, and he realized that someone was slicing through the lock. Selu ducked behind a couch and hoped Sarth had already alerted Samtel and Lena. If his suspicions were correct, these Mistryl would be much harder to defeat than the last time.

Just outside the Kraen residence

“Hurry up with that lock,” urged Vena.

“I’m working on it,” hissed Sallas. “Unless you can do better. There, sliced.”

The door hissed open, and the two Mistryl, packing lightweight repeating hand blasters and an assortment of other eclectic weapons were in the house with as much sound as a feather falling, checking to ensure that no opposition awaited them, weapons at the ready. Sighting the smallest trace of someone crouched behind the couch, Sallas signaled her partner that she would deal with the threat. Vena nodded and kept going into the house. Lunging forward, she leapt over the couch, blaster at the ready, only to have her charge met by someone tackling her in mid-air, knocking her blaster away.

Responding quickly, she unleashed a powerful hand jab into her assailant’s neck, sending him falling painfully as she landed on the floor and rolled back up. Selu, gagging, came to his feet just in time to receive Sallas’s side kick to the face. As he staggered back, she lunged forward with an invisibly thin knife in one hand, ready to finish her injured opponent.

Selu called on the Force to draw off the pain, and met Sallas’s lunge with another, catching her knife hand in a classic arm trap and bending her wrist back. Her kick barely slowed his advance, as Selu turned and caught most of it on his thigh instead of his groin. As he trapped her knife hand with his right arm, he drove his left elbow into her face as hard as he could. Following up the counter-attack, he launched into a flying tackle, trying to knock her to the ground to deny her the ability to move effectively, where his larger size and knowledge of ground fighting would work to his advantage. Sallas hit the floor hard, but brought her knees back and kept rolling backward while pushing with her legs, sending Selu flying.

Selu, surprised, drew on the Force and landed facing her instead of clumsily flying into a wall. With an angry sneer and blood dripping from her mouth, she closed the distance on him, unleashing a series of fast strikes with both her hands and legs. However, Selu was more attuned with the Force this time and blocked most of them or turned their force, so they merely bruised and stung rather than crippled him. Sallas realized that her opponent was a match or more than a match for her and decided to even the odds with some Mistryl weaponry. Backing off, she pulled two repulsor-powered throwing razors from the pockets of her jumpsuit and hurled them at Selu simultaneously.

Selu’s eyes widened as the two deadly flying weapons sailed towards him like a pair of concussion missiles launching from a starfighter. Leaping up, he twisted his body and limbs so that the two blades just narrowly missed slicing open his flesh. Ignoring the bloody graze across his chest, he whipped out the Stokhli spray stick from his belt as the two razors looped around to return to their thrower. The first razor came in too fast for him to try and ensnare it, so he hit it with the spray stick’s haft, sending it ricocheting into the wall. As he aimed the spray stick at the second razor, a powerful roundhouse kick hit him in the lower back, knocking him down onto his knees, his legs temporarily paralyzed and folding down beneath him. Compensating for the sudden disruption of his aim, his thumb depressed the trigger on the spray stick, shooting a line of electrified liquid netting at the second razor, ensnaring it. However, rather than letting go of the switch and letting the now-disabled razor hit the ground, Selu swung his stick violently back towards the Mistryl, jerking the razor, still attached by the netting, back at the original thrower.

Sallas barely had time to scream before the razor, partially covered with spray net but still lethal, buried itself almost entirely into her chest, shattering her sternum and knocking her back as if she had been hit by a blaster bolt. The sharp razor had enough force on impact that its tip sheared through her aorta and embedded in her spinal column, and her final moments were wracked by spasms of pain as she died. Selu slowly rose, urging his trembling legs forward. He stepped forward awkwardly, looking for the second Mistryl. Peering down the main hall, he realized with horror what had happened.

Vena had not been idle. While Sallas dealt with the man behind the couch, she had burst into Sarth’s room and done a thorough search of the room. Finding nothing, she had advanced into Selu’s room, but still had no sign of her prey. Pressing forward, she threw open the door to the main bedroom, illuminated only by the moonlight coming through the windows, but quickly flattened herself against the wall as a blaster bolt sizzled past a few centimeters from her nose. Peering around the edge of the doorframe, she aimed her light repeater at the three people crouched behind a large bed and put a blaster bolt into the offending weapon. Samtel, his weapon exploding in his hand, hurled it at her, but she dodged it easily and it clattered into a wall. Stepping over a satchel lying carelessly near the entrance, Vena advanced on the cowering three.

“It’s over, scientist,” she said icily. “You’re coming with us.”

“Never!” Sarth shouted back at her, his voice trembling.

His mind raced frantically, wondering where Selu was.

“Oh, I do think so,” she assured him menacingly. “You’ll come with us, or I’ll shoot your dear parents and then drag you away unconscious.”

She stepped forward slowly and towards the bed as Sarth, paralyzed by a sudden jolt of fear, vainly tried to scoot back along the floor. Before she could take a second step, Samtel grabbed a datapad from a shelf and hurled it at her. Vena ducked under the projectile, furious. That insolent old man would pay for his stupidity. Raising her blaster, she took careful aim and squeezed the trigger, sending a pair of blaster bolts at Samtel.

Samtel Kraen watched in horror as the deadly woman aimed her blaster at him and squeezed the trigger. Suddenly, a silver object shot forward from the open satchel in the doorway and a column of blue coherent light poured from its emitter nozzle, intercepting the bolts and redirecting them into the ceiling. The blade suddenly reversed direction, spinning backwards toward the Mistryl in a horizontal circle of light. Vena acted quickly and threw her entire body back, watching with odd fascination as the blue blade whirled over her head, scoring her gun arm with a line of fiery pain from a mere nick, and back into the hands of a man down the hall that Sallas was supposed to have killed already. Selu advanced grimly on her, blade held ready at the double-handed guard of Ataru, but Vena had recovered from her evasive maneuver and had jumped through a large hall window, escaping the house. Selu followed her, climbing through the hole she had made, cautious, but predatory.

Vena was panicked now. Their mission was almost certainly doomed unless she could eliminate the bodyguard, who had apparently dealt with Sallas, and quickly, too. Of course, if that blade was any indication, she was facing a Jedi Knight. How could that be? All the Jedi were supposed to be dead. Obviously the Empire hadn’t gotten to all of them. His presence on the Kraen estate meant he was probably Selusda Kraen, Sarth’s brother, presumed dead on Coruscant. If she got back, this information might be useful, but first she had to escape. Firing an ascension gun, she swiftly clambered onto the roof and waited for Selu to come through the hole she had made in the window. No sooner had she gotten into position, gripping her blaster with a two-handed grip since her right arm had been injured, than Selu burst through the opening, looking for her. She fired a string of blasts at him, but marveled as he calmly brought the blade to high guard and deflected each one of them, some of them back in her direction.

Selu’s blade hissed and sparked as the bolts snapped and bounced off it. The Mistryl was good, trying to attack him from above. It was time to change that. He vaulted upward onto the roof, blade slashing outward to prevent her from charging him while he was in mid-air. What he didn’t count on was Vena firing an ascension gun at him, and while his saber’s swing slashed off the piton, the rope whipped around the lightsaber hilt before he could reverse the blade to stop it. She yanked, and the weapon flew spinning off and wrenching Selu’s wrist. A feral smile appeared on her face, and the two closed, engaging in fierce unarmed combat, each countering the other’s punches, jabs, kicks, seeking an opportunity to land a decisive blow. Both were weakened, and though Selu had the advantage of the Force, Vena was less injured.

Selu threw a flurry of punches at Vena, only to have her dodge, block, and counter. A sharp pain exploded in his wrist as she attacked a pressure point, and he went sprawling as she swept his legs out from under him. Twisting his torso ninety degrees, he landed a kick on her shin, preventing her follow-up kick from landing. Selu stayed on the ground, grabbing her other leg and pulling it out from under her. Vena landed hard, but she landed fighting, hooking her fingers into claws and striking muscles and nerve clusters on Selu’s arm, immobilizing it. She jabbed at his throat, going for a killing strike, but Selu ducked his head and took it on his chin. He punched her in the face, but that left his arm vulnerable for a similar clawed strike and he cried out in pain. To be safe, Vena landed an upper cut punch into his solar plexus as he lay sprawled on his back.

Satisfied that Selu was unable to continue fighting, she straddled the prone man, crouching down to look him in the eye.

“You’ve fought well, Selusda,” she said triumphantly. “But not well enough.”

Selu glared at her defiantly, but a quick punch to the face wiped the stare off of his face.

“After I’ve killed you, I’ll kill your parents and then I’ll take your brother with me. I wouldn’t have killed them had you not gotten in my way, but they know too much now, and it’ll feel really good to watch them die.”

Selu stared at her, horrified, but powerless to stop her. Vena reached down the front of her now battered and scratched jumpsuit and withdrew a short vibroblade from where it had been tucked away.

“I’m going to cut your throat,” she said with a cold smile, the vibroblade descending in a lethal arc.

Fueled by desperation and empowered by the Force, Selu brought his hands up, forming them into a V shape and locked them onto her wrist as she tightened her grip on the blade. Rather than fight her attempt to stab him, he brought the blade down towards his chest, but bent her wrists down and back towards her so the blade was parallel rather than perpendicular to his body to delay the inevitable stab wound. Thrusting upward with his entire lower body, his right knee and left shin connected with her hips, throwing her over his head. Selu felt the short blade draw blood on his torso and heard a scream from the Mistryl as she sailed over his head, followed by a snapping sound a minute later. Pulling himself up painfully, he looked over and saw that she had flown over and off the roof, breaking her neck on the ground below when she landed on her head.

Selu slowly made his way down from the roof back to his parents’ room, where they were still hiding. Every step was sheer agony. Stopping for a moment, he called the lightsaber back to his hand and hooked it onto his belt before re-entering the house, staggering faintly from the effort. Walking into the room, he peered faintly in to see his relatives huddled behind pieces of furniture with scared expressions on his face. Somehow, he found the strength to utter the words he had to say from his battered mouth, needed to say, using the last vestiges of his strength.

“They’re gone,” he slurred through a bloody mouth. “But itsh not shafe here.”

Seeing his condition, his mother and father ran to catch him as he collapsed onto the floor, unable to stand anymore.

“Shome homecoming,” he managed before he passed out.

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