The destruction of the Death Star brought new hope to the be- leaguered Rebel Alliance. But the relentless pursuit by Darth Vader and the Imperial fleet is taking its toll on Alliance resources. Now the rebels hide in an Outer Rim orbit from which they can search for a more permanent base and for new allies to supply much-needed weapons and materiel.
Luke Skywalker, hero of the Battle of Yavin, has cast his lot with the rebels, lending his formidable piloting skills to whatever missions his leaders assign him. But he is haunted by his all-too-brief lessons with Obi-Wan Kenobi and the growing certainty that mastery of the Force will be his path to victory over the Empire.
Adrift without Old Ben’s mentorship, determined to serve the Rebellion any way he can, Luke searches for ways to improve his skills in the Force . . .
There’s no one around to answer all my questions now that Ben’s gone. It’s a stark fact that reasserts itself each time I wonder what I’m supposed to do now. That brown robe he wore might as well have been made of pure mystery; he clothed himself in it and then left nothing else behind on the Death Star. I know Han likes to scoff at the idea of the Force, but when a man’s body simply disappears at the touch of a lightsaber, that’s more than “simple tricks and nonsense.”
And I know the Force is real. I’ve felt it.
I still feel it, actually, but I think it’s like knowing there’s something hidden in the sand while you’re skimming above it. You see ripples on the surface, hints that something is moving down there—maybe something small, maybe something huge—living a completely different life out of your sight. And going after it to see what’s underneath the surface might be safe and rewarding, or it might be the last thing you ever do. I need someone to tell me when to dive into those ripples and when to back off.
I thought I heard Ben’s voice a couple of times during the Battle of Yavin, but I’m wondering now if that really happened. Maybe I only thought it did; maybe that was my subconscious speaking to me—a kind of wishful thinking. He’s been silent since, and I don’t feel I can talk to anyone else about the Force. My confidants at this point consist of one blue-and-white astromech droid.
Han and Chewie are off somewhere trying to earn enough credits to pay off Jabba the Hutt. They lost all their reward money from the Battle of Yavin and they’re back to being broke and desperate—the galaxy should beware.
Leia is cloistered with the leaders of the Alliance in the fleet, which is currently hiding in the Sujimis sector around an ice planet no one has paid any attention to since the Clone Wars. Not that she would want to hear about my worries any more than I would like to speak them. She has much more important things to do than to waste time putting a bandage on my insecurities. Threepio is with her, no doubt feeling unappreciated for his predictions of imminent doom in over six million forms of communication. That leaves Artoo and me free to run an errand for Admiral Ackbar.
I’ve been dispatched to Rodia in an effort to open a secret supply line to the Alliance. I’m not supposed to call it smuggling—Ackbar has serious issues with the very concept, but the truth is the Alliance can’t operate without it. Since the Empire is trying to shut down our lines of supply in the Outer Rim by going after smugglers’ dens, and the established black markets in the Core are a bit too risky for us to employ, we have to look for other sources to exploit. Rodia is under Imperial control, but Leia suggested that the Chekkoo clan on the Betu continent might be open to working with us. She said they despise the ruling Chattza clan and are highly skilled at manufacturing weapons, armor, and other hardware we could use to fight the Empire. Leia was betting they’d defy the Empire to spite the Chattza clan, and we stood to benefit. Mon Mothma was unsure of the idea, but Ackbar surprised everyone and weighed in with Leia, and that decided it.
I don’t know what it is about Ackbar that tends to quash arguments. He has a kind of moist charisma, I guess, that no one wants to challenge. I know I don’t want to dispute him, anyway.
Once it was agreed, I volunteered for the mission, and they loaned me a beautiful personal yacht to fly in. My X-wing would set off all kinds of alarms if I dared to enter Rodian space in it, but a small transport with minimal weapons would be no big deal. Both Artoo and I whistled when we first saw it in the docking bay of the Promise, one of the Alliance’s frigates. It was less of a yacht and more of a showpiece.
Painted a metallic red and trimmed in silver, the cockpit and living quarters of the ship sat forward and the wings swept back in an unbroken arc, like a half-moon thinking about going crescent. The rear end looked a bit like someone had taken a bite out of a cookie, and it was packed with big sublight engines, jammers, sensor arrays, and shield generators. The power was all invisible from the front or the sides—it spoke of luxury and decadence—but the back told anyone pursuing that they wouldn’t be keeping up for very long. It was built for speed and quite possibly spying while doing its best to look like a rich person’s pleasure craft.
“Nice, isn’t she?” a voice said, causing me to tear my eyes away. “That’s the Desert Jewel. You fly her safely, now.” The speaker was a tall woman with dark skin and a cascade of tightly curled ringlets framing a narrow face. She gave me a friendly smile and I smiled back.
“Is she yours?” I asked.
“Yep! Well, I guess I should say she’s my father’s. But both his ship and his daughter are at the disposal of the Alliance now. Just got here last week.” She extended a hand. “Nakari Kelen. Glad to meet you.”
“Kelen?” I said, taking her hand and shaking it. She had a strong grip, and I tilted my head to the side as I connected her name and the ship’s to a memory. “Any relation to the Kelen Biolabs on Pasher?”
Her eyes widened. “Yes! Fayet Kelen is my father. Are you from Pasher?”
“No, I’m from Tatooine.”
“Ah, another desert planet. So you understand all about my fascination with ships and how they can take me far away from home.”
“Yeah, I understand that very well. I’m Luke Skywalker.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” she said, finally letting her hand slip from mine. “They told me you’d be taking my ship out for some kind of spooky mission, but no one told me you hailed from Tatooine.”
“Ha. It’s not really spooky. Kind of a boring business trip, in fact, but this looks like it will prevent any Imperials from thinking I’m with the Alliance.”
“I should hope so. My baby’s classy and elegant and ill disposed to rebellion.”
“Hey, speaking of ill disposed, mind if I ask you something?”
Nakari nodded once, inviting me to proceed.
“I’ve always wondered why your dad chose Pasher for his biolabs. You’d think a jungle planet would be better suited simply because there’s more actual biology there.”
She shrugged. “He started small and local. The poison and glands of sandstone scorpions and spine spiders turned out to have medical applications.” She chucked her chin at the Desert Jewel. “Very profitable applications.”
“What did you do on Tatooine?”
“Moisture farming. Spectacularly dull. Some weeks were so boring that I actually looked forward to going into Tosche Station to pick up some . . . power converters. Huh!”
“I just remembered I never did pick up my last shipment. Wonder if they’re still there.”
“We all have unfinished business, don’t we?” That was an unexpected turn to the conversation, and I wondered what she meant by it. I wondered why she was there at all, frankly. The comfortably wealthy rarely stir themselves to get involved in rebellions. But I had to admit she wasn’t dressed like the privileged child of a biotech magnate. She wore desert camo fatigues tucked into thick-soled brown boots, a blaster strapped to her left hip, and what looked like a compact slug rifle strapped to her back, held in place by a leather band crossing diagonally across her torso.
I flicked a finger at the rifle. “You hunt sandstone scorpions with that?”
“Yep. Can’t use a blaster on them. Their armor deflects heat too well.”
“I’d heard that.”
“And since so many people are wearing blaster armor these days, a throwback weapon that punches through it is surprisingly effective if you know how to shoot one.”
“Hunt anything else?”
“Of course. I’ve been to Tatooine, actually, and bagged a krayt dragon there. Its pearls paid for the upgrades on the Jewel. She’s still Dad’s ship, but I’ve modified her quite a bit, and I hope to have the credits soon to buy her from him outright. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Both of us were grinning and I was excited, happy to have found someone with a similar background way out here in an icy part of the galaxy. I couldn’t speak for Nakari, but meeting someone with shared experience filled up a measure of its emptiness for me, especially since she clearly understood why ships are important: They take you away from the deserts, even if it’s just for a little while, allowing you to think that maybe you won’t shrivel and waste away there, emotionally and physically. Not that the rest of the galaxy is any more friendly than the dunes. My old friend Biggs, for example, loved to fly as much as I did, and he escaped Tatooine only to die in the Battle of Yavin. I miss him and wonder sometimes if he would have done anything differently if he’d known he’d never set foot on a planet again once he climbed into that X-wing. I console myself with the guess that he would have gone anyway, that the cause was worth dying for and the risk acceptable, but I suppose I’ll never know for sure. The Empire didn’t fall and the rebellion continues, and all I can do is hope the next mission will prove to be the one that topples the Emperor somehow and validates my friend’s sacrifice.
A walk-up loading ramp into the Desert Jewel put us in the narrow corridor behind the cockpit. Unfortunately the ramp was also the floor and with it down we couldn’t move forward—a clear shortcoming in design—so we had to close it and leave poor Artoo on the hangar deck before we could enter the cockpit.
Nakari pointed to hatches on either side of the corridor. “Galley and head on the left, bunks and maintenance access on the right,” she said. “Your droid can plug in there. There’s a lot of emergency supplies, too, survival gear that comes in handy when I’m scouting planets for Dad. Breathing masks and an inflatable raft and suchlike. The bunks are kind of basic, sorry to say. I spent all my credits on speed and spoofs.”
“A wise investment,” I assured her. “Can’t enjoy any kind of bunk, much less a luxurious one, if you can’t survive a panicked flight from a Star Destroyer.”
She sawed a finger back and forth between our heads. “Yes! Yes. We are thinking alike here. This is good, because I want to see my ship again.”
“I’d—” I stopped cold because I almost said I’d like to see you again as an unconscious reply, but fortunately realized in time that she might misinterpret that as an incredibly inept pass at her. I finished with, “—think that would be good for both of us,” and hoped she didn’t notice the awkward pause.
“Indeed.” She waved me forward. “After you.”
“Thanks.” Five steps brought me into the cockpit, where I slid into the seat on the left side. Nakari rested a hand on the back of my seat and used the other to point at the banks of instruments. “She’s got top-of-the-line jammers and sensors from Sullust, a holodisplay here, which is kind of low-end because I’d rather have these high-end deflector shields, and twin sublight engines on either side that will shoot you through space faster than an X-wing. Oh, and she’s got a point-eight hyperdrive for the long hauls.”
“Wow. Any weapons?”
“One laser cannon hidden underneath where I’m standing. You activate it right there, and a targeting display pops up.”
I winced. “Just one cannon?”
“She’s built to run and keep you alive until you jump out of trouble. Best not to get into any trouble.”
“Good.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “Be safe, Luke.”
I turned in my seat, surprised that the tour was over so quickly. “Hey, thanks. What will you be doing in the meantime?”
She opened the boarding ramp and then jerked a thumb at the rifle stock behind her shoulder. “I’m training some of the soldiers in sharpshooting. Heading dirtside to shoot frozentargets on Orto Plutonia. I’ll be plenty busy.” Her eyes flicked down to the hangar deck, where something made her smile. “I think your droid is ready to come aboard.”
“Is he in your way?”
She began to descend, and I called after her as she disappeared from view. “Sorry! He’ll move.”
Artoo rolled up a few moments later, and I found the button that would secure the ramp behind him. He chirped and sounded impatient with me, but as usual I couldn’t understand him. “You can jack in to the right,” I said, and he scooted in there while continuing his electronic scolding.
We had to navigate several different hyperspace lanes to get to Rodia from the Sujimis sector and I was getting used to the way the Jewel handled, so our trip probably took more time than strictly necessary. Fortunately, we weren’t in a hurry and I enjoyed every minute of it. The Jewel was sheer pleasure to fly; the cockpit was quiet, unlike the high-pitched electronic whine of my X-wing.
Artoo successfully installed a program into the Jewel’s computer that would translate his digital beeps into readable language. His words streamed on the holodisplay that Nakari had pointed out to me, and I kept the ship’s intercom on so that he could hear my words.
“Artoo, take us to Llanic, will you? We need to stop there to see if we can find someone to smuggle for us if the deal in Rodia works out.”
Situated at the intersection of the Llanic Spice Route and the Triellus Trade Route, Llanic bustled with smugglers and other ne’er-do-wells in a way that might have moved Ben Kenobi to call it a “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” even if it was not quite as wretched as Mos Eisley. Plenty of illicit credits flew through there, and because of that the Empire kept a watch on it. Leia had given me a briefing, warning me that Moff Abran Balfour patrolled the spice route often, and he represented the nearest Imperial presence to the current location of the Alliance fleet. I was not supposed to give him the idea that perhaps the fleet was somewhere in his sector.
I was expecting a lively screen full of contacts when I entered the system, but perhaps not quite so lively as it proved to be. One of Moff Balfour’s Star Destroyers showed up immediately, though it was too far away to pull me in with a tractor beam or engage in any meaningful way. Flying much closer to me were two TIE fighters, pursuing a ship that didn’t appear able to put up much resistance. They were firing on it, and its shields were holding for the time being, but I doubted that would continue for much longer, especially since it was slower than the TIEs. I imagined there would be unidentified rattling noises on the ship, not indicating anything dire, just a general statement of decrepitude and imminent destruction. Didn’t seem like a fair fight to me, but I wasn’t going to make it my problem until I realized the ship was of Kupohan manufacture. The Kupohans had helped the Alliance in the past, and might do so again.
Not that there were necessarily Kupohans inside, or even Kupohans that were friendly to the Alliance. I had innumerable reasons to mind my own business and leave the ship to its fate, but I decided to dive in anyway on two guiding principles: If they annoyed the Empire this much, they were at least margin- ally on my side; and since I could help them, I should—and no one was around to argue with me about that last principle.
“Artoo, plot us a course out of the system right away,” I said, and accelerated to intercept speed. “We’re going to have to get out of here in a hurry after this. And hold on to something.” The artificial gravity generator would keep him glued to the floor, but it wouldn’t prevent torsion from the extreme maneuvers ahead. Normally he’s wedged snugly into my X-wing and there would be no worry about such things.
I engaged the ship’s baby laser cannon and waited until I got a system go-ahead, then dived on the lateral axis toward the TIE fighters. I flipped on the deflector shields and locked on the targeting computer. One look at the ships and I knew the TIE pi- lots were hanging on to the orientation of the Star Destroyer from which they had deployed; they had a sense of which way was “up” and they were sticking to it, which is a limiting and even dangerous perception to hold on to in space. Up and down don’t really have a meaningful use until you’re in atmosphere. I deliberately rolled as I dived, adjusted my nose so that the leading TIE fighter was in my sights, and fired.
The Desert Jewel
’s bolts turned out to be blue and shot in bursts of three. The first burst missed entirely, but the second tagged the TIE fighter and destroyed it. The second TIE rolled away to the left in an evasive maneuver and I pulled up, planning to flip a loop and dive again; the Kupohan ship was still moving, free of Imperial pursuit for a few moments.
I expected the TIE to bank around and try to acquire a firing solution on me, and for a couple of seconds it looked like it was going to, but then it veered away to reestablish an attack vector on the Kupohan ship. That struck me as very strange behavior— to ignore a mortal threat and give someone a free shot at your unshielded ship while you pursued a fleeing target. I almost didn’t believe it and checked to make sure there wasn’t another ship on my scanners that I’d missed somehow, something waiting in ambush, but there was only me, the remaining TIE, and the Kupohan in the immediate vicinity. It looked like the Star Destroyer had just launched an entire squadron of additional TIEs, but it would take them a while to catch up.
“They must want to erase that ship in the worst way,” I said, thinking aloud. The TIE pilot had probably been given an order from the Star Destroyer that amounted to “Kill the Kupohans, or don’t come back.” From my perspective, that was all the more reason to help out.
Without the danger of being fired upon, I lined up another run and pulled the trigger on the TIE fighter, even as it was doing its best to blast the Kupohan ship to pieces. The Kupohan’s shields held under the onslaught, but the TIE fighter came apart at the first touch of my lasers.
“There,” I said, and checked the position of the Star Destroyer again. It wasn’t in range yet, but it was moving full-speed to catch up, and the squadron of TIEs were still a couple of standard minutes out. “Maybe I can get some answers. Artoo, prepare the next jump and see if you can raise the Kupohan ship.”
The droid’s reply appeared on my holodisplay: jump ready now. initiating contact.
“Good. I hope that they can still—” I cut off as the Kupohan ship jumped to hyperspace without so much as a thank-you. “Well, I guess they can
still jump. We should do the same. Take us to hyperspace as soon as you’re ready, Artoo.”
The tension drained from my shoulders as I disengaged the laser cannon, but my mouth twisted in regret as the stars blurred and streamed past the cockpit window during the jump. I couldn’t help but feeling somewhat disappointed. I wondered who was on that ship and why they mattered so much to the Empire—and whether compromising my mission and putting this ship on Imperial wanted lists was worth it. It was worth it to the crew of the Kupohan ship, no doubt—they still had their lives. But I wasn’t sure if I’d done the Alliance any favors with that particular episode, and now, with the opportunity to evaluate it coolly, I saw how rash the decision had been. Now I had to skip Llanic entirely and go straight to Rodia, hopefully ahead of any Imperial alert to be on the lookout for me.
Perhaps I’d do well enough there that Leia and Admiral Ackbar would forgive me for tweaking the Empire’s nose when we were supposed to be hiding.
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