Star Wars fan fiction
introduction to Circles Complete
Can’t Go Home Again
Trial by Fire
Turning Points: So Alone
Turning Points: So Alive
Steer the Shore
Seed of Deceit
Euphoria and Foreboding
Out of Darkness
Out of Doubt
~~ ~  ~ ~~
Two Years Later
~@~ The Pieces
Luke Skywalker walked the marble floors of the old Imperial Palace on Coruscant, navigating the ever-crowded hallways with a practiced ease as he made his way to Leia's office and then quietly let himself in. He waited for the door to close behind him before glancing around the corner that separated her office from a tiny vestibule which served as a waiting area.
He had assumed that she would be fighting through the usual dunes of datawork, but he wasn't surprised to also hear several voices mixing in the room ahead of him. Leia had already picked up on her twin brother's sense, and he could sense her eagerness for the welcome interruption as she waved him inside with a grateful smile. Not only was she surrounded with datawork, but two senator's assistants were gamely attempting to bend her ear in a favorable direction for their cause before the next Senate meeting.
It took a few more attempts and rebuffs before the seconds began to realize that Leia wasn't going to be swayed today. Worse, she was beginning to grow annoyed by their repetitive efforts. So they made their final appeals and wisely retreated to leave Leia and Luke alone.
Leia dropped tiredly into her chair as the outer door slid closed. As she sat, she handed a datapad from the corner of her desk over to Luke. He scanned it in silence for a few moments before looking back to his sister, and he noticed again how tired she looked.
"Myrtle System?" Luke asked thoughtfully.
She responded with a dry smile. "Exactly," Leia said, reaching for a holo projector from one of the shelves behind her. "Kind of like the Tao System, except on the opposite end of the galaxy."
Leia set up a small holo device and Luke watched it move through a long series of systems, as if it too were trying to illustrate the point, before it finally stopped on an image of the Myrtle system, neatly revolving that image in midair above the desk.
"I guess that shouldn't be surprising," Luke conceded. "They can't set up operations right under our nose, now can they?" he smiled, wondering which of the issues of the day had been the focus during the last session of Senate debate.
"I suppose not," Leia agreed. His attempt at lightening her mood had only worked in part.
Luke grimaced slightly. "When do I leave?"
"Immediately, I expect," she answered with a sigh.
His eyebrows raised in casual surprise. "They must really want progress on this."
"What they really want is to get that weapons supply capped. This is the next best thing."
"Right," Luke replied, and his thoughts refocused. "What do we know about this system?"
"Unfortunately, not too much," Leia half shrugged.
"Great," Luke managed under his breath. Before Leia had the chance to further expound, an alert chime sounded from across her desk. She glanced toward it almost warily before she looked back to her brother. They both recognized its prompt.
"Well, here we go," Leia breathed.
"Again, I must advise against sending someone in this early in the investigation," Admiral Ackbar persisted. From the tone of his gravelly voice, he knew that this argument was already decided; that knowledge did nothing to mute the strength of his conviction, however. "We don't yet have enough information on these radical groups. We don't know how widely spread or how well-supplied they are." He hesitated. "And we don't know anything about their internal compositions."
Murmurs of protest arose from the handful of high-ranking delegates who made up the Senate's Inner Council.
"Admiral Ackbar." Mon Mothma's smooth voice cut through the clamor of the others. "We are aware of your concerns, but I feel that the need for swift action is implicit in this situation."
Ackbar's Mon Calamari eyes swivelled in an expression of his disappointment. "We have only begun to process Senior Officer Pellaeon's request for surrender. We cannot allow our desire to reclaim the outer territories or our overconfidence in the Empire's defeat to hasten our actions and cloud our assessment of implicit risks."
"Which is precisely why Jedi Skywalker is being sent into the Myrtle system, as a scout," came an icy rebuttal from Borsk Fey'lya. The Bothan delegate had no love loss for Ackbar. Judging from the withering glare with which Ackbar fixed Fey'lya as he scanned the table of his peers, that assessment could easily be called mutual. "This is simply a fact-finding mission, Admiral," Fey'lya concluded with an almost mocking simplicity.
Everyone present knew that that statement was untrue, or at least that it was only a pretext. Luke had been able to ascertain, mostly from what had been left unsaid during the lengthy briefing, that this part of the galaxy had never truly been chartered. Mon Mothma and the rest of the Council were very much aware that bringing this sector into the New Republic would go a long way toward building confidences in the fledgling government. It would show that they could restore order to territories that had been lost to lawlessness during the Rebellion, and well before. Once order was restored, safety and security regained, then they could begin the business of truly leading all the systems of the New Republic into a new era of peace and prosperity.
On the other hand, there was a great deal of wisdom in Admiral Ackbar's argument. They were dealing with an almost completely unknown quantity, which did present them with a great many implicit risks. Under the Old Republic, Myrtle had been a busy trade sector which took pains to keep political affiliations nonexistent. Now it was believed to be a major operations center for one of the galaxy's largest illegal organizations, and a chain in the suspected Imperial Remnant Supply Network.
Everything they were dealing with was an unknown.
Ackbar shifted his weight in a Mon Calamari gesture of concession. His only remaining argument was that sending an agent in now could cause the group to panic and go underground. The Inner Council had already spoken its voice on that matter by assigning the mission to Luke.
"Jedi Skywalker." Mon Mothma addressed him, her voice almost regal in its authority. "You understand the importance that this mission be carried out with absolute stealth, and with the upmost caution." It was not a question or an instruction, but a confident assumption.
Luke stood slowly, letting his gaze pass around the gathering of the New Republic's highest officials. He met Leia's eyes for a moment, long enough to see her give him an encouraging smile before his gaze returned again to Mon Mothma.
"This action," she accentuated, "could be a vital step in suppressing the warlord factions and putting a stop to the last of the Imperial Remnant Resistance, thus ensuring the long-term survival of the New Republic, and all that it stands for."
"I understand," Luke stated.
The leader of the Rebel Alliance and the New Republic smiled, only the corners of her mouth allowing the display. "Then we wish you well," she offered in a voice that was at once heavy and hopeful. Luke knew that her words marked his dismissal, and he obediently nodded in acknowledgment to her and to the other Council members. But the Jedi's eyes came back to rest on Mon Mothma's before he would turn to go.
Mon Mothma's steady-handed leadership both earned and commanded respect, and something told Luke that the leader of the New Republic would be right about the importance of this mission.... Just as in the Old Times, a Jedi Knight bowed in service to the Republic. And just as in the Old Times, he was sent into harm's way with one simple utterance to wish him well.
"May the Force be with you."
Luke paid off yet another planet official, guardedly nursing the feeling that he might finally be getting somewhere. Over the past several months, infiltrating this system and building up his cover here had been his primary concerns. The process had been involved and progress had been slow, but that was expected for an undercover mission as important as this one. The faction that Luke was tracking controlled this rim system, just as hundreds of others controlled many more systems across the galaxy. In addition to selling weapons and ships for profit, the larger warlord factions also consisted of elaborate networks running huge illegal organizations, and this particular faction was thought to be one of the largest in the galaxy. Trying to backtrack its activities was like trying to follow a shadow.
Warlord factions were fringe operations, themselves functioning in the shadows of the galaxy. The secrecy that was essential to their survival made them hard for an outsider to track, and the loyalty that was demanded from their members had made it hard for New Republic Intelligence to successfully infiltrate them in the past. Gradually Luke had found his own leads within the outlines that New Republic Intelligence had been able to lay out for him, and the largely self-contained system was just as gradually opening up under the Jedi's watchful investigation. As he walked the streets of the system's central planet, Myrtle itself, Luke was hopeful that in the near future he would have something more solid to show for his efforts.
He walked at a casual pace through the scruffy trees and wild flowering plants that lined many of the open walkways threading the city. His eyes passed as casually over what had once been brightly-colored signs hanging from the doorways of the remaining shops. Now they were symbols of neglected elegance and forgotten civility. Luke guessed that this had once been a respectable and prosperous place, but the Myrtle system continued to show itself to be a strange paradox. What he had found here was a mixture of thriving commerce and elegant natural beauty, all deeply buried beneath layers of corruption and illegal activity.
A strange sense of vicarious nostalgia tugged at Luke as the thought persisted. He felt a sadness that the spirit of this place, once vital and alive, was now worn down by the harsh reality it faced. Life here had been reduced to mere survival. Luke hardly needed to look around to realize that beings were scared. Much like the rule of the Empire, the warlord who ran this system did so by inspiring fear. That being was so feared, so much in control here, that the citizens did not dare to go against him; they knew that they lived and died at the mercy of that one individual.
The quiet streets, abandoned homes and businesses, indicated that much of the population had left this planet at some point in the recent past. Most likely, the ones who remained here did so because they had nowhere else to go. They were desperate to survive their own desperate circumstances, and any one of them would be capable of turning Luke Skywalker in for a small profit, or for no reason at all.
Luke wondered when the grim change had come to this place, and how it might be reversed... but he put those thoughts aside as he located the shop his last "contact" had directed him to. If he was going to affect any change here, Luke would first have to find out just who this warlord was. He cautiously stepped inside the shop, and the teenage boy who was watching the counter perked up at the entrance of a potential customer.
"What'll ya need, sir?" he asked eagerly.
Luke slouched a bit as he crossed the room, moving slowly and deliberately. Then he stepped forward to lean his weight over the back of a chair before he intoned, "I'm looking for somebody." Luke's eyes measured the boy for a long moment. While his alter ego was deciding if he should reveal his agenda just yet, Luke was reaching out to the Force. He could sense another person nearby, probably within earshot somewhere in back.
With the casual air of a man used to relying on great sums of money, Luke pulled a collection of credits from his coat pocket and let the silence build for a moment before leaning in further toward the counter.
"Now, who do I need to talk to?"
The boy's eyes had grown large watching the credits. Then, remembering himself, he quickly skittered off toward the back of the shop.
Luke stood up straight again, watching the boy go. Then he turned to let his elbows rest casually on the counter top behind him, waiting. A few minutes later an unkept man with a suspicious gaze leaned through the back doorway to get a look at the stranger. Luke gave the newcomer another few heartbeats to look before slowly turning to face him. His wary gaze measured the lined and dirty face just as deliberately as it had the boy's. Then Luke stood waiting for the other man to break the silence.
"So, stranger, you're in the market for information."
Luke only nodded fractionally, cooly.
"Follow me," the other man said, abruptly turning and walking out through the back of the shop.
About an hour later Luke was beginning to feel as though he was attracting the right degree of attention (and parting with an adequate number of credits) to convince several of the locals that he was a wealthy entrepreneur who was looking to creatively invest a great deal of cash. When two of those locals suggested getting a shuttle to take them down to one of Myrtle's small moons, Luke figured he was either about to get the break he had been hoping for or a small-time ambush. Mixing just the right combination of professional distrust with self-interest, Luke managed to cajole them into letting him pilot his own ship down to the moon's surface.
R2-D2 beeped a question as Luke climbed up the entry ramp and keyed for its close behind him.
"No," Luke responded lightly, "luckily they trust me about as much as I trust them." Luke smiled as Artoo expressed his simultaneous relief and doubt. The little droid worried almost as much as his counterpart. "They want to go down to one of the moons – they say they'll take me to someone there who can help me."
Artoo gave a hesitant warble, which made Luke smile again.
"We'll follow them down; get the sublight systems up for me," Luke called as he headed into the cockpit. The droid would have to remain behind in the ready room. This model light freighter wasn't made to rely on an astromech unit, so a special socket had been designed for Artoo where he could secure himself for flight, and from which he could interface directly with the ship's computer.
Luke knew that the little droid didn't like being physically separated from his master, and Luke had to admit that he also was feeling a certain longing for the simplicity of the old days. Back then, all the two of them had had to worry about was staying one step ahead of the TIE fighters... but things were different now. There was no more evil Empire to fight, only a collection of the former regime's supporters, and the warlord factions who were making a tidy profit by supplying them.... Going up against the Empire, the odds had always been overwhelming, but at least the threat was clearly defined; you knew who your enemy was.
Luke felt decidedly wary as he stepped into the freighter's cockpit; he didn't trust his two guides, and he knew nothing about this moon they were taking him to. An X–Wing fighter would hardly have gone unnoticed for very long in this part of space, but he wished that the New Republic could had given him something a little smaller, and slightly more maneuverable. Luke realized grimly that he would have preferred something with a single seat cockpit, but it was his cover that dictated these things and not his preference. Therefore, he found himself aboard a light freighter that had been painstakingly converted into a luxury yacht (The ship's fake ID dubbed it the Part and Parcel to coincide with Luke's cover persona. Luke had no problem imagining that his eccentric and filthy rich alter ego would give his ship such a silly moniker.). And despite Artoo's loyal company, that empty copilot's seat proved something of a distraction to Luke.
There was a longer flurry of distressed beeps just as Luke strapped himself in. He glanced at the ship's translator in response, but Luke already had an idea what this was about too.
"I know it's a long shot, but the trace on that encrypt we picked up at Mylar shows that this sector is where the orders are coming from. It may be a part time base, or a meeting grounds, or just a relay station. Regardless, I've got to find its location and try to get an ID on whoever's in charge here so that Coruscant can have a shot at shutting them down. That's why we're here, just a simple fact-finding mission, remember?"
Luke smiled again. Apparently Artoo didn't think any more of Councilor's Fey'lya's characterization of this mission than Admiral Ackbar had. But the little droid's skeptical response became more upbeat toward the end.
"Thanks, Artoo, but you'll be of more use to me on board," Luke assured him, mentally amending that earlier comparison to Threepio. "Just keep a lookout, and be on guard in case anything unexpected comes up," he finished. The little droid chattered a quiet response as Luke lifted the ship off. They were soon headed toward Myrtle's nearest moon, which was actually a small, blue-green sister planet called Myrina.
A short time later Luke and his two guides arrived at a shady cantina that straddled the edges of the spaceport and what looked to be an outpost town. In the back of his mind Luke remembered Han's confident appraisal that all information of value traveled through places like this one. The grin that overcame him at that thought eased his own apprehension a little.
He watched as his companions stepped away to enter a private discussion with a set of capable-looking alien guards who were standing at the doors; Luke couldn't readily identify their species. Each of the guards resembled walking rock faces. Splitting his attention between the impromptu conference and the small square around him, Luke took a quick survey of his immediate surroundings.
The cantina and several adjacent buildings formed a wall in front of him, and a small, decorative wooded area filled in the distance behind him. The small park was blocked off from the pedestrian street by a waist high wood-worked wall, also meant to be decorative. The Force assured him that there was no one hiding behind it, but there were several civilians weaving leisurely paths through the park beyond it. Nothing there appeared to be threatening, but he had learned long ago not to rule out such possibilities on looks alone.
Luke slouched a little further into his nondescript clothing as one of the guards turned to look in his direction. Feigning the proper nervous intimidation, he quickly glanced to each side. While avoiding the larger creature's stare, Luke was able to finish assessing his surroundings: to his left, the stone-paved street turned away sharply about two blocks up, and the spaceport they had put down in was roughly twice that distance to his right.
Luke hesitantly returned his gaze to the guards. They were approaching him now, with the other two men trailing a respectful few steps behind. Judging from the smug looks the guards wore, there would be questions to answer before he would get any further. They did not get the chance, however. Before the guards reached Luke, the noise of several loud voices – growing louder as they drew nearer – pulled everyone's attention away. Luke's small group stood watching as a larger group of dangerous looking individuals emerged from an alleyway down the street and turned toward the cantina.
Luke resisted his instinct to step into a defensive posture and instead kept himself in character, looking worriedly from the newcomers to the guards and then back to his two companions. The latter were taking the new arrivals the hardest. They looked visibly frightened, and clearly wanted to be someplace else. Picking up on that fact, one of the guards took a long step toward them. They paled considerably in response. Luke looked back to the approaching group; they were now completely out in the open street, and he could count ten, maybe twelve men. The men varied in age and size but they all carried the look of small-time fringe mercenaries: ruthless, greedy, and dangerous. And the motley crew was just realizing his presence.
"Hack, Govin, what's all this?" A man standing slightly out in front of the others addressed the two guards.
"Our two associates here," the larger of the two guards explained, nodding toward the two men who accompanied Luke, "think they've found somebody the boss'd want to see. We were just about to offer our opinion," he finished with a self-satisfied smirk.
Closing the distance between them, the man who led the mercenaries looked Luke up and down. Judging by his expression, the man was unimpressed by what he saw. "You're not from around these parts," he stated suspiciously, and threw a threatening glare at Luke's two guides. "How'd you know to find the boss here?"
Suspicious agreements arose from the tightly packed group behind him.
Luke took a cautious breath. "I asked a few questions, showed a few credits. Seems common knowledge your boss is someone to see." He hoped the mix of understated intimidation, casual bravado, and flattery would serve its purpose.
The leader of the pack seemed to be considering Luke's words as the men behind him started to spread out. Luke's guides had obviously seen enough at that point; they took off at a run before the men who were starting to surround them could get any closer. A few members of the gang half-heartedly gave chase before they turned back to join their comrades in laughing at the cowardly display. The two alien guards, Hack and Govin, also seemed to sense that their role here was drawing to a close. They quietly moved back to their post outside the cantina's entrance.
A sinking feeling came over Luke as he scanned the circle of faces that was gradually moving to surround him. He couldn't break his cover, and he couldn't allow himself to be captured. Either of those things would compromise his identity and the mission. Protecting the mission was his first concern, and it left him with very few options. A fight at these odds, without the use of his lightsaber or any other tactics dependent on the Force, would be very ugly. Luke had to hope that he could talk his way out of this one.
"Maybe." The leader's measuredly amused voice cut into Luke's thoughts. "But maybe you've got other plans while you're here, like picking up a little extra money." Then the man's voice abruptly took on a more threatening tone. "Well, I got news for ya. That reward is goin' to one'a us. So don't think you're gonna come in here and snatch it away."
"Pracos is right!" Voices began to cry out, unseen, from the pack of mercenaries. "He's just after Dare."
"He just wants the reward," another tough voice echoed.
"Wait a minute," Luke interrupted cautiously. "I'm a businessman, not a bounty hunter. I've never even heard of this, Dare."
"Likely," another man challenged in sarcastic disbelief, "real likely. Well, no off-worlder is tak'n my reward."
A loud chorus of agreement rang out, and with each passing second Luke saw his situation growing more perilous. A minute ago he'd had a chance at reasoning with them, when they hadn't seen him as a threat. Now they would refuse to believe anything he had to say. He would be lucky to stall them, and luckier still to get himself out of this. Luke glanced around the circle once more. Too many for mind tricks. What he needed was a distraction, and he didn't see any way to create one large enough to allow for his escape without giving himself away. His mind was racing desperately for alternatives as the first of the men closed in, striking at him and pulling back. They were playing with him, like a wild krayt would play with a trapped womp rat.
Luke reached out to the Force. Letting it guide his defense, he shifted in turn to meet and block several successive feints. The men's amusement was fading now. He could feel their minds turning serious. Deadly. Luke took a deep breath, clearing his mind and preparing for the worst as two attackers came at him from opposite sides. The first man took a swing at his head and Luke ducked to avoid it. The second man connected from behind with a hard fist to Luke's rib cage.
The rest of the men cheered. Smelling an injury, the circle started to press in on him.
Luke gathered himself, trying to watch all directions at once, trying to find a way out.
Suddenly he felt a change, a shift in the Force around him. A second later one of the men cried out, "Look! That's Dare."
"Get her!" Another yelled.
One side of the ring surrounding Luke fell away as the men rushed to meet their new target. Luke caught a glimpse of the black-cloaked figure who was balanced on the wood-worked wall, unmoving, as the fighters rushed in. Precious seconds lapsed as she waited. She was stalling them, Luke realized numbly. Her delay was giving Luke the extra seconds he needed. Quickly, he moved into action. Grabbing the arm of one of the men nearest to him, Luke used his own hip as a pivot to throw the man to the ground. Another man took his place, and Luke, deep in the Force, concentrated on meeting each attack.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of motion as Dare broke from her stance. A pair of wicked sweeping kicks knocked the first two men backward and stopped the other's mad forward rush. As her adversaries fell back in hesitation, Dare moved into action again. In one dauntless motion, she launched herself off the wall. Putting her body into a midair corkscrew twist, she was able to use her own momentum to take out several more attackers before rolling up into a standing guard position.
Again she had taken the advantage, shifted the make up of the other side's attack, and succeeded in keeping the greater numbers of her adversaries off balance and disadvantaged. Luke could understand why this fighter gave these mercenaries such a hard time, but he still knew nothing about why they wanted her captured. He stretched out with his emotions, letting a part of his mind extend beyond his present. He was trying to get a feel for his new ally, the fight they shared, and, hopefully, to find a chance for escape.
They were holding their own for the moment. Luke could sense Dare's calm focus on meeting each attack, and he could sense that she, too, was concerned about how they would find an escape. They were both aware that even though the danger was not immediate, the odds were still against them. The longer this went on the more susceptible they would become to fatigue and injury, and their adversaries would still outnumber them. All were good reasons to cut this as short as they could. With that thought in mind, Luke started to steadily make his way toward Dare. The hooded figure nodded slightly in his direction, and a few moments later they were fighting almost back to back.
Luke dodged the onslaught of one charging attacker and sent a second down with a hard forearm. He saw the first man turn to rush back into the fight only to go down hard behind him, meeting with a side kick to the jaw. Luke started trying to edge their way east toward the spaceport, slowly moving the fight in that direction. That plan only worked for a few minutes before the leader of the mercenaries realized what Luke was trying to do. He motioned for several of his men to back off and spread out their attack, threatening to surround their quarry again and cut off any chance of escape.
Luke looked urgently to each side, assessing the situation. A few of the men were down, but there were still too many for two people to fight their way through. If they tried to make a break for it now, they would easily be captured.
"If you've got any tricks up your sleeve, now would be a good time," came a clipped suggestion from a strained voice at his back.
She was right. Luke felt it. He reached out to the Force, readying himself as the next attacker came at him. This time when Luke's physical blow connected, he used the Force to push the flailing recipient back into two other men, taking those three down and knocking over a fourth man beside them for good measure. For a few seconds there would be no opposition from that direction. For those few seconds, they had a way out.
"Now!" Luke yelled, breaking into a run through the gap.
Dare paused over one of the fallen fighters, then she was half a step behind Luke. They ran hard down the open street. Behind them, defeat turned into desperation for the men who had been outfought and outsmarted. One of them pulled out a weapon, firing wildly in anger. Another followed suit with greater accuracy, ignoring their leader's frantic cry for cease-fire.
"No. No! She's got to be taken alive!"
One of those shots came dangerously close to finding its mark, and Luke was sent tumbling for safe cover. The leader's command for cease-fire was still echoing in his ears as the ground rushed up under him, but Luke rolled to his feet safely inside one of the spaceport's open repair hangers. He quickly glanced back to see Dare holding cover for him with a weapon that she must have taken off one of the fallen mercenaries.
"They're still coming," she reported, ducking back inside the hanger.
Luke scanned the surrounding area, getting his bearings and searching for the quickest way back to his ship. "C'mon," he called abruptly, and started off at a run for the far hanger bay.
The bay was still quiet when they arrived. Luke jammed the blast doors behind them while Dare rushed across to the hanger's main entrance. She ducked out, quickly checking their cover, then she raced across the open space to take up a watch position nearer to the ship. Luke followed a moment later and came to a stop behind her, glancing worriedly between the hanger bay's entrance and his ship. He knew there wouldn't be much time before they found him.
"You're all clear, for now," Dare confirmed, turning back to him.
And for the first time he was able to see her face underneath the hood.
"You." Luke heard himself utter.
Blaster bolts broke the frozen moment. The mercenaries had arrived.
"They've got reinforcements," Lyra called, immediately returning fire.
Luke reached out with the Force to trigger the blast doors at the hanger bay's entrance, cutting off the outside attack. That meant he would have to blast his way out of the hanger once he could get his ship into the air, but that was something to worry about later; first he had to get the ship into the air before the mercenaries' fire could bring those doors down from the other side.
"That won't hold them for long," Luke said. Lyra Dare had turned back toward him after the blast doors slammed shut, and Luke found that he had a hard time taking his eyes away from her face. That was the face he'd thought he would never see again, the stranger who had saved his life. He'd thought he'd never have the chance even to speak to her. Now she stood in front of him, real, and close enough to touch.... Luke shook himself loose from those thoughts and turned toward the ship.
"Artoo, get her ready to fly," he called loudly. "We don't have much time," Luke said under his breath, starting toward the ship. The astromech droid beeped urgently from somewhere inside. But Luke had hardly taken a step before he turned back, frowning. Lyra hadn't moved. She stood, weapon at the ready, her shoulder still pressed to the cover of the hanger wall. Luke took a step toward her, to tell her that they had to hurry, to offer her safe passage to anywhere she wanted to go – but he stopped short as he sensed the struggle within her. She looked uneasily from the blast doors, to the ship, and finally back to him. This should hardly have been a difficult decision, but for some reason it was.
The woman's small form barely moved beneath the flowing dark attire and the hooded cloak, worn to disguise her identity. If she stayed here, she'd continue to be hunted. Perhaps she didn't consider that threat worth leaving whatever life she had built for herself here. Perhaps leaving here with him wasn't her first choice for an escape... but Luke wasn't about to repay her by leaving her to fend for herself against a gang of mercenaries who obviously wanted to turn her capture into a hefty reward. More like a bounty, Luke amended bitterly, and he didn't like to consider the kind of welcome that would await her on the other end of that transaction.
Leaving here with him was the safer, smarter alternative. Someone with her training and experience should have readily recognized that. She should have been able to put any misgivings aside, choose to extract herself from immediate danger now, and worry about her next move later. But Luke didn't see that happening. Judging from the struggle he still sensed in her emotions, right now her decision-making process was not so objective. On the surface, she appeared calm, merely undecided. Her expression remained unreadable – until her eyes lifted to meet his. Then Luke could clearly see the doubt and caution held there. He realized in that moment that Lyra was not the same person she had been three years ago; he recognized the painful, shell-shocked emptiness behind her eyes.
The blast doors started to give way under heavy fire from the other side, and the astromech droid's beeping grew more frantic in response. Clearly the little droid could not understand what his master was waiting outside for. Still, Lyra stood frozen.
"Now would be a good time to make an exit," Luke offered, the urgency of the situation underlying the quiet in his voice. He stood silently beside his newfound ally, waiting, and wondering at the obvious depth of the conflict that held her in place.
She glanced once more between him and the failing blast door, the weight of that moment heavy on her. Then, with a swiftness that caught him by surprise, she made her decision and had already broken for the ship. Luke was only a step behind her, but he slowed to a cautious halt as they reached the ship's ramp. He knew that his only concern should have been getting them out of here, but her unexplained hesitation continued to worry him.
Lyra paused as well, turning back to him. "Thought you said we were going," she quipped easily, despite the heavy seriousness that remained in her eyes. Lyra waved a hand in front of herself for emphasis, waiting for Luke to go aboard his own ship.
Across the hanger, the weakened blast door lurched partially open.
Luke glanced in that direction as a few blast bolts were able to make it through the gap. They grazed the blast door and scorched the floor just inside the hanger, but could do no real damage – not yet. He returned his gaze to Lyra, reaching out with the Force. Luke could still sense a great deal of uncertainty in her. There was plainly something grim and powerful behind the seriousness that weighted her thoughts, but strength and determination had replaced the doubt and caution from a few moments ago. She was sure of her decision.
"Right," Luke nodded, and he bounded up the ship's ramp in a quick couple of steps. "Artoo?" he called.
The droid responded with what was clearly a scolding, mixed with his desire to get off world as fast as they could.
"Good," Luke murmured under his breath as he headed for the cockpit. "The ship's ready to go."
"Your droid has an interesting way of expressing good news! For a minute there, I thought we were going to be in trouble."
"I might be in trouble with him, but the ship's fine," Luke explained as he dropped into the pilot's seat and began keying for lift off.
Lyra fixed him with a curious stare and moved easily to take over the copilot's position.
Luke took a deep breath as he eased the Part and Parcel into the safety of hyperspace. After the impressive show of ground force that had been set against the two of them, there had not been much in the way of air resistance. They had been able to get out of the system quickly thanks to a preset hyperspace jump which Artoo had accessed when he powered up the ship. But the tight scrape made Luke miss the dependability of his X-Wing all over again, or even the familiarity of the notoriously unpredictable Millennium Falcon.
The converted freighter that Luke was currently piloting was a good ship, heavily modified by the New Republic to be up to whatever he would ask of it, but Luke still thought like a pilot. No amount of technical jargon about scientifically proven special modifications could take the place of the kind of confidence that was earned by hours spent in the cockpit testing a ship's capabilities.... The knowledge that Artoo Detoo was monitoring the ship's every move and working constantly to make sure it was ready to give Luke what he needed meant far more to Luke than any field test.
"Artoo, pull up two more jumps on the nav, will you? And check the ship for any homing or listening devices. We don't want to take any chances on being followed."
The droid responded with a short affirmative and a longer, hurt-sounding reproval.
"Thank you, Artoo," Luke answered gingerly, grinning at the translation console. Then he looked over to Lyra. "He'll be reminding me that I cut this one too close, for the next few days, at least," Luke said to her conspiratorially. Then he paused. "He worries about me," Luke explained a little abashedly, as if he were talking about a dear family member, or an old friend.
Lyra only nodded, favoring the Jedi with an amused half smile.
"Thank you for your help back there," he offered, then paused again. "Our friends down on the Myrtle moon. How much do you know about them?"
She looked at him for a moment, her expression curious again. Perhaps she had been expecting him to go straight to more obvious questions, but she wasn't surprised by this line of questioning. From what she had seen on the planet, Luke Skywalker had been doing a thorough job of making himself look like any other inconspicuous mark; if he had done any better, he might have gotten himself killed, or at least beaten to a pulp. But the nondescript clothing and malingering disposition he had been hiding behind didn't fool her. Lyra knew the man as a Jedi Knight, and she knew that he must have come here for a reason. He had a mission to complete, and until it was completed any personal concerns he might have about her would have to fall by the wayside. She respected that, and he deserved a straight answer from her.
"They've been running this part of the galaxy since Endor. Laus seems to consider me an asset to his organization." Lyra spared a tight smile at her own dry understatement. Luke was more concerned about the brief flicker of emotion he had sensed from her at the mention of Endor, but he ignored it for now.
"Laus?" Luke asked.
"Waton Laus," she clarified, offering the name.
Luke nodded appreciatively. "My contacts were very careful not to provide a name, but they did make it pretty clear that he operates out of that cantina."
"As far as I know, yes. But then, I've been a bit out of touch," she finished, her voice trailing off. He sensed her mood fall.
"Those were his men who jumped me," Luke prompted next.
Lyra nodded, refocusing her thoughts. "If you want to call them that," she responded wryly. He was just tying up the loose ends now; she understood that. "Laus is in charge of that ravel with firepower."
Luke suppressed a grin at her blunt assessment, but his amusement faded as her mood darkened again. The nav beeped its ready mark, and the silence waited while Luke double-checked the readings and made the second jump. When he looked back to her, his expression was quiet and calm. Again, Luke caught himself taking in the details of her face and finding it hard to look away.
"Can I ask... why you did what you did for me?"
She took a deep breath. There was the question he wanted to ask, the one she had been expecting.
The woman's sense changed subtly as she was tempted to skirt the question, and again as she considered how she should respond. The caution in her measured response further reminded Luke of whom he was dealing with. This woman was the beautiful and mysterious figure who had captured his imagination when she had saved his life at Aci. She was also the Imperial agent who had been assigned, at Darth Vader's command, to protect him from assassination by Mara Jade.
"It seemed important at the time," she answered him quietly. There was just a hint of curiosity in her otherwise softly guarded voice. Her followup question took on a more conversational tone. "How much do you already know?"
"Mostly what Mara Jade has told me," he said slowly. This time Luke was watching her for a reaction, but he saw none. "She said that you were conscripted into the Empire – that Vader himself chose you as a second."
Lyra nodded only slightly, a distance creeping into her eyes as she remembered back to another lifetime.
"And Mara told me that for nearly six years you made it your job to keep her from killing me." Luke's voice was solid, but awe still came through in places. "Even after Vader died at Endor," he finished, and he watched her closely. This time the mention didn't show on her.
Lyra nodded again, more strongly, in acknowledgment. Then she sighed. "Why?" she repeated slowly, as if the word were new to her. "Maybe I needed to finish what I started. Maybe I didn't want the Empire to end the Jedi. Maybe I didn't want Mara Jade to finish it." She stated each answer with the certain simplicity of a person attempting to choose between equally certain truths. Finally she shrugged gently. "It was important at the time," Lyra decided again, offering him the same quiet truth and giving away little else.
"And now?" Luke prompted, trying to look past the woman's cool and aloof demeanor.
Lyra smiled, almost begrudgingly. "I'm glad that you aren't dead," she offered evenly.
The smile that had been playing on his lips died there as suddenly as her mood darkened. She was sincere, but for a second time he could see the shell-shocked hurt within her. He understood that it was her decision to stay with him then, that she was paying such high toll for now.
Luke looked back to the controls, feeling a heavy weight of guilt settle over his emotions.
"It was my decision," Lyra stated.
He looked back to her slowly, and she met his gaze with a solid sense of defiance. Something about that look caused Mara's words about having respected this woman in spite of herself to ring through him.
"But you didn't know the cost would be so much," Luke stated honestly, heavily.
"My decision. My cost," she answered.
The nav's ready alarm interrupted. Luke nodded slightly, then turned away to complete the last jump.
"You still haven't told me where we're headed," Lyra pointed out.
"Sorry," Luke offered with a half grin. "Coruscant," he said, turning back to the nav computer. "Unless you've got somewhere to stop first," he added as an afterthought.
At this point, with his cover compromised and Laus' forces on the alert, it would have been foolish to try another infiltration. Right now his best bet was to return to Coruscant with the intelligence he had gathered, and let Laus continue to think that his operation on Myrina was secure. But he couldn't overlook the fact that Lyra Dare had ended up playing a key part in this mission. Not only had she helped Luke to escape a very tight situation on Myrina, but she had also provided the missing piece of the puzzle that he needed to complete this mission. She had identified the person Luke had been trying to track down for the last several months: Waton Laus. And, like it or not, Lyra would have to speak to the Senate Inner Council about what she knew.
"You're serious," Lyra said, her voice dripping in skeptic disbelief.
Luke looked back at her, puzzled.
"You'll be lucky if they let you in system with me aboard," she stated incredulously. "Considering the level of internal espionage and political chicanery under Palpatine," she continued with a sympathetic snort, "I wouldn't want a high-ranking Imperial within a three system radius if I was them. And that's not even taking into account that most of what I did was buried so far underground–" she broke off. Suddenly falling speechless, Lyra shook her head slightly. "Well, Coruscant won't be extending the ceremonial pleasantries for me anytime soon."
Luke only smiled. "That was a long time ago. You're not with the Empire any longer," he stated simply.
Lyra looked at him in disbelief. "I was in direct service to Darth Vader for most of four years, and I've got no solid explanation for the eight years since."
Luke studied her, trying to read through her defensiveness and the many layers of conflicting emotion that he could sense underlying it.
"Did you choose to serve the Empire, of your own free will, under no duress?" he asked of her evenly. Luke thought he saw her shudder at the question, but those powerful defenses held out and the one-time Imperial agent held his gaze without flinching.
"No," Lyra answered, her voice barely a breath behind haunted eyes.
"And you have no loyalty to the Empire now?" Luke posed his next statement more strongly.
She looked at him knowingly, a half nod pushing her chin forward as she answered. "You know I haven't. It won't be enough," she added.
Luke took a deep breath. They both knew there was truth in what she said, but it didn't change his position. "I'm still gonna need you to make a statement. If Coruscant is out of the question for you, we can find another way to do that. I won't force you to go back," he added more quietly, "but if it's what you choose, I give you my word that I'll stand with you."
She looked away, out toward the stars that were still hanging in the cockpit's forward viewport. Then, slowly, Lyra took a deep breath and nodded her consent. Her voice was determined when she spoke again.
"Of my own free will, or otherwise, I've done what I've done. I'll answer for it of my own free will."
Without facing him again, she stood and turned to leave. Luke heard the cockpit door open behind him.
"Lyra–" he called without turning to face her.
She stood in the doorway.
"What was the cost – my life?"
He felt her wince as he breathed the last of his question, and Luke listened to his own heartbeat echo in the silence as he awaited her answer.
"I chose not to go home after Endor." She paused for a moment, fighting to keep her emotions in check. "It had been over four years. My family didn't know if I was alive or dead when Laus' men came for me."
She stopped, and Luke could sense her searching for a way to speak the words through the silence.
"My parents and my brother were killed."
Luke closed his eyes, physically and mentally reeling against the sick feeling in his stomach. He knew there were no words.
So did she. When he turned around she had already gone.
So Let it Be Written Publishing © 2004