Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Part 25- Deep Into the Unknown

Ev was back in the cockpit only moments before they exited hyperspace into the Lorrd System. She slid quickly into the copilot's chair and reported, “We're well outside even their sensor range. I've already got the next four jumps calculated, so the Ebon Hawk is ready as soon as you are, Carth.”

“While we're out here and away from the Sith, I want to report back to my superiors,” Carth said slowly, “They should be prepared for action, whatever we find in this unknown system.”

Ev nodded, “Do what you need to do, Lieutenant.”

It bothered him to see Ev use that title again, but he brushed it off. Punching in a set of high-security Republic navy codes, he hailed Dodonna's ship, “This is Lieutenant Carth Onasi, requesting to speak with Admiral Dodonna.”

Libra here. Lieutenant Onasi,” a male voice on the other end answered, “It says here that your posting is classified, on a special mission.”

“It is,” Carth replied stiffly, “And that is what I would like to speak to the admiral about.”

“Stand by,” the man replied, “We will contact her.”

“Yes sir,” Carth replied.

A few minutes later the comm noise was finally broken by a familiar voice, “This is Admiral Dodonna of the Libra. To whom am I speaking?”

“Lieutenant Carth Onasi,” he replied.

“Onasi! Good to hear from you at last,” she replied warmly, “What do you need to speak to me about? Is your mission progressing?”

“Yes,” Carth answered, “If what we believe is correct, we are in route to the Star Forge itself, which may be the source of the Sith's power.”

“The Star Forge,” Dodonna echoed, “What is it?”

“We're not sure,” Carth admitted, “but it's an ancient weapon of some kind, the apex of a pre-Republic empire.”

“Amazing something so old could be such a threat to us now,” the admiral observed.

“When we reach the system, deep in the unknown regions, we will investigate what we find and hail you again,” Carth said, “If this is some great weapon of the Sith, we may be able to wipe it out with a surprise strike from the Republic navy.”

“I will have a large strike force ready to deploy, should we hear from you. This is the chance we have been waiting for,” Dodonna replied decisively. “How long do you expect the journey to take you?”

“We're in the Kanz sector now,” he started slowly, glancing over at Ev, who held up seven fingers, “So it should take us about seven days to get to our destination.”

“Good,” the admiral replied, “Then I shall wait for your signal.”

“There is one other thing,” Carth cut in hesitantly. He didn't want to cause a panic, but he also trusted Admiral Dodonna to use the knowledge wisely, “We've lost Bastila.”

“She's dead?” Dodonna gasped quietly.

“No,” Carth replied painfully. From the start, Bastila was his responsibility. “She was taken by Darth Malak. We fear that he may try to turn her to his cause. If she were to fall to the Dark Side, that could doom the Republic fleets.”

“Caution taken,” Dodonna answered. “Who all is left on your crew? For the records.”

“Myself, Padawan Evrue Pell, Jedi Knight Juhani of Cathar, Mandalorian Canderous Ordo, Jolee Bindo, an unaffiliated Force user, Twi'lek Mission Vao of Taris, and the Wookiee Zaalbar of Rwookrrorro,” Carth listed. He almost forgot, “And Kionee Rinnh, who reportedly ran blockades for the Republic during the Mandalorian Wars.”

“That is quite a crew you have picked up,” Dodonna observed, “I take it you have needed a wide range of skills in your travels.”

“Yes, we have,” Carth replied.

“Well, should something happen in the last leg of your journey, we now know who to mount a rescue for,” Dodonna said, “Now, could you transmit the coordinates of your final destination?”

Carth looked over at Ev, who nodded and set to work. “Transmitted,” she reported a few moments later.

“Coordinates received,” Dodonna reported from her end. “If that is all—”

“Ask about the Jedi enclave,” Ev urged in a whisper.

“We had heard that the Jedi Enclave on Dantooine was destroyed,” Carth cut in, “Is this true?”

“Regrettably, yes,” Dodonna answered, “And the Sith did a damned thorough job of it too. We didn't find a single survivor in the ruins. Thankfully, there are still other Jedi enclaves around the galaxy, and some of the Dantooine Jedi were elsewhere at the time. I am glad your crew was far away at the time.”

“So am I,” Carth agreed. He shot a quick glance at Ev. He had never seen her cry before, but she looked about as close to it as she had ever come. Even after only a month, those Jedi had made a deep impression on her.

“Is there anything else, Lieutenant?” Dodonna asked.

“No, that's all,” he replied.

“If all goes well, I will see you next week in this unknown system,” Dodonna said, “Libra out.”

“Are you okay?” Carth asked Ev immediately.

She quickly collected herself. “Yes, I'm fine,” she said stiffly. Changing the subject, Ev suggested, “Let's get back into hyperspace. The sooner we get there, the better.”

“The coordinates are already punched in?” Carth asked.

“Did that while we were still in hyperspace from the last jump,” Ev replied with a sly smile, “I'm way ahead of you, Lieutenant.”

Again with that name. She hasn't called me that since, what, Kashyyyk? Dantooine?

“Alright, take her away,” Carth urged.

Ev thrust the hyperdrive's handle forward and the ship rushed forward into the protective cover of hyperspace once again, speeding across the outer room of the galaxy.

Putting her hands behind her head, Ev sat back in her chair. “Well, here we go again,” she murmured.

“With all of the maps found and Korriban behind us, especially, I want to say the worst is over,” Carth admitted.

“But we have no idea what lies ahead,” Ev finished for him, “On that it most probably involves another encounter with Darth Malak.”

Savory smells of food wafted down the corridor and into the cockpit.

Carth started to rise, saying, “Well, let's go check out what the others have whipped up for lunch.”

Ev stood too, but she didn't follow. Holding onto the back of the copilot's chair, she asked with a plaintive stare, “Carth, can we talk?”

He stopped mid-step and leaned back against the display-covered wall of the cockpit. “Sure,” he replied cautiously, “About what?”

“About me being Revan,” she answered. “The others have all been straight-out with me, and I know what they think. But I have to hear from you. Where do you stand.”

Carth sighed and looked away. “I should have known this was coming,” he began, “I wanted to hate you for all that you've done; for all of that destruction and death. Even now, this continuing war is your fault. Everyone knows that it was you and not Malak that led your fleet into the unknown and orchestrated the revival of the Sith. It was you that started this war.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ev flinching at his every word, “I've tried to hate you, but I can't.”

Ev met his eyes. She seemed a little surprised, almost disbelieving. Carth felt stung by it. With my track-record of mistrust and hate, it's no wonder. I've earned that.

“Seeing you here now,” he continued, “I just can't imagine you, the Ev I know, in that mask and black cape. Sure, those are the hands that have killed billions, but what's inside is different. Ev, you're not that killer any more. What the Jedi did for you, they gave you another chance. Maybe I don't agree with it, but I'm glad they did. Ev, you're courageous, compassionate, intelligent, decisive, and powerful; just what the galaxy needs in a savior. And, despite your past, you've risen to the challenge and become that leader—that hero that we need to believe in. Maybe you started this war, but you, and really no one else, can end it.

“I want to stay with you until the end, helping you as long as you still want my help. And even despite all this mess, I think—I think I still love you,” Carth admitted.

Ev released a deep sigh. “Thank you Carth,” she said quietly, “I know just how hard-won your trust is. But what happens if someone flips a switch and I suddenly become Darth Revan again?”

“Then I hope I can be there to save you from yourself,” Carth replied.


~~~


Even Carth could sense Canderous' frustration and restlessness. He took apart and fixed things that didn't even need to be fixed. He went over the star chars of their routes over and over again, even though he had already confirmed that Ev's jump calculations were flawless. He furiously studied the battle reports that Carth had left lying around. Yet none of this seemed to satisfy him in the least.

Canderous had even taken to challenging Ev to hand-to-hand sparring duels. Having seen Canderous lug around a massive blaster rifle for the last few months, Carth wouldn't have thought to call the aging Mandalorian agile. He threw his weight around fiercely with just as much athleticism as Ev's nimble tumbling.

Panting after one of their duels, Canderous and Ev settled down in the command deck with some water. Carth himself was sitting across the room, reviewing one of the naval reports that Canderous hadn't gotten to yet.

“You're running from something,” Ev observed of Canderous.

“What are you talking about?” Canderous scoffed.

“You had your duel with Jagi while I was in the Sith Academy,” Ev observed shrewdly, “Didn't you? How did it go?”

“Jagi brought the two other survivors from that battle, plus three sympathizers from another clan,” Canderous narrated distantly, “They allowed me to use the rest of this crew for support. That was their mistake. When Jagi lay dying, he said, 'Well, now you really have killed the whole squadron, brother.'” He fell silent.

“And so?” Ev pressed him gingerly.

“I think that battle effected me more than I thought. I going to need some time to sort things out,” he sighed and rose, then paced off through the ship.


~~~


“I wanna be where the Mon Cal are. I wanna see, wanna see 'em livin',” Mission and Kionee sang at the top of their lungs from the communications deck. It hadn't taken Mission long to discover that she had a holovid buddy in Kionee, for even the most ridiculous films. Kionee spent most of her first night on board the Ebon Hawk watching several of the vids that Mission hadn't been able to convince anyone else to watch with her. Their amusement resumed right away the next morning, after breakfast.

“Isn't 'The Little Quarren' a kids' film?” Canderous observed over his own late breakfast.

“Mission is a kid,” Carth pointed out.

“That, what's-her-name, Kinny kid,” Canderous started.

“Kionee,” Carth corrected him.

Canderous continued, “Yeah, Kionee, she's at least older than Juhani. I'd bet she's almost as old as Ev.”

“Really?” Carth said incredulously, “I can hardly believe that. But she did say she ran blockades during the Mandalorian Wars. Though, that wasn't that long ago.”

“Depending on who you ask, we started fighting sixteen years ago,” Canderous said.

“Well, we call the start of those wars four years ago,” Carth informed him.

“'We' as in the Republic?” Canderous asked irritably, “We fought a lot of non-Republic systems before your high-and-mighty selves got involved and named it a war.”

“You know what,” Carth snapped, “I don't want to argue about this.”

“Fine,” Canderous shrugged, “We'll leave it be. You keep on believing what you believe, and I'll know what I know.”

“What would I give, if I could live up in those waters...” Kionee and Mission's voices chorused through the lull in their conversation.

“I still don't understand why you and Ev let her on this ship so quick,” Canderous said distastefully, “She was spying, and you let her stay.”

“She can't do any damage now. We're in hyperspace,” Carth replied, “And anyway, we met her on the Leviathan, and broke her out of their prison. She fought all the way up to the bridge and back to the ship with us.”

“And heard Malak and Ev's revealing conversation,” Canderous observed. “Sure, now I see why she was after us.”

“She seems like a good kid,” Carth defended her halfheartedly.

“And now that she knows where Revan is, she could be keeping tabs on her, on someone else's credits,” Canderous suggested, “Or she could be waiting for the right moment to kill her right here on the ship. We don't need a useless passenger who might jeopardize what we're doing. No one is watching her or keeping her restrained at all.”

“Out of the deep, wish I could be part of their world,” Mission and Kionee finished, heart-wrenching and off pitch, then burst into laughter.

Kionee stumbled out into the hall, still giggling. “I'll be right back,” she said, “I've just gotta use the 'fresher.”

“Okay, I'll pause it for you,” Mission called back.

Kionee turned and walked right through Canderous and Carth's disapproving stares.

“Just who are you, anyway?” Canderous asked.

“Uh, me?” Kionee stopped, confused. “I said it before, but I'm Kionee Rinnh. I fly for Rinnh Imports. Well, my dad owns it.”

“What are you doing on this ship?” Canderous continued his questions.

“He,” Kionee pointed to Carth, “And, well, Ev, they told me I should come with after the Sith got my ship on Korriban.”

“I know that,” Canderous snapped, “But what were you doing on our ship before that invitation? No one has taken the time to ask you that yet, have they?”

“I—I,” she stuttered, “I wanted to know if it was true, about Revan.”

“So you were spying then?” Carth observed.

“Not spying,” she protested meekly, “Just investigating.”

“Same thing,” Canderous said forcefully.

“Did you tell anyone about what you heard on the Leviathan?” Carth asked.

“Other than Emtee, no,” Kionee shook her head, “I didn't even tell my family that the Sith caught me. They'd worry too much.”

“Any chance your droid told anyone?” Canderous asked.

“Why would he?” Kionee responded defensively.

“Then who did you plan to tell after checking out our ship?” Carth asked.

“I,” she stammered, “I don't know. Ev didn't seem dangerous. She saved me, after all, and she was fighting against Malak, not with him. But if she really is Revan, then I don't know what that means.”

“Oh, she is alright,” Canderous said.

“But how? I don't understand how she could be here, alive, a good person,” Kionee said, “I thought the Jedi killed Revan.”

“That's what they wanted us to think,” Carth replied, “It's a long story.”

“Listen here,” Canderous brought the conversation back to his own liking, “We don't need a do-nothing passenger who does nothing but watch holovids all the time. Do you know where we're headed?”

Kionee shook her head.

“We have been tracking some ultimate weapon of the Sith, called the Star Forge,” Canderous explained, “And that's where we're headed now, to see what we can learn about it and probably destroy it if we can't take control of it ourselves.”

“This tiny group, taking on a Sith super-weapon?” Kionee observed in disbelief.

“Call us a specialized strike-team,” Canderous said. “You just sitting around will be trouble for us and for you. If you're going to use up the air on this ship, you've got to pitch in, understand.”

“I already flew co-pilot on our way out,” Kionee pointed out, “I'm a pilot myself.”

“You ship fruit from one safe planet to another,” Canderous said dryly, “That ain't anything like flying a dogfight.”

“Maybe it's not,” Kionee pursed her lips, offended, “But I've got combat flight experience, all the same.”

“She ran a number of your Mandalorian blockades, if you'll remember,” Carth pointed out.

“I'll believe it when I see it,” Canderous scoffed, “You're so green, I can practically see it on your skin.”

“If he has the military clearance, I'm sure Carth could find me on the records,” Kionee said with hurt pride, “Lorrd, Commenor, Vanquo, and Taris, though I couldn't break Taris this time around. I was the freighter that almost got caught in the bombardment above Telos V and hailed the Republic fleet.”

“Wait, Telos? That was you too?” Carth completely forgot about interrogating Kionee. This was personal.

She nodded, “That used to be one of the main-stay planets on my route. I was just leaving the system with a shipment when the Sith fleet appeared.”

“I,” Cart stammered, “Thank you. Telos was my home.”

“I'm sorry I couldn't have been any faster,” Kionee said, honestly sorry.

“I'm sorry I couldn't have either,” Carth murmured.

“So you're a pilot with a good dose of luck,” Canderous said, “We already have a couple of those. Can you fight?”

“If push comes to shove,” she admitted reluctantly.

“No,” Carth answered for her, “Sorry kid, but you're lucky to be alive after all of those skirmishes aboard the Leviathan.

“I know,” she said, hanging her head. “But, I promise I'll help wherever I can.”

“And keep your nose out of this ship's files,” Canderous added tersely.

“I, um, really do need to use the 'fresher though,” Kionee cut in sheepishly.

“And why don't you let her?” Ev suggested poignantly from the doorway. “Or are you not done with your interrogation yet?”

Kionee glanced quickly at Ev, then hurried off.

“Take it easy on her, would you, boys?” Ev said sharply. “She's a good kid, and I trust her. Who knows when we'll need another pilot again. We really are flying into the unknown here. And, given the way she jumped to help us aboard the Leviathan, even without any battle experience, I'm sure we can expect that she won't be lazing around while the rest of us are on the job. First and foremost, however, we're giving her asylum against the Sith. We can't allow our progress to be tracked, so we can't drop her on an inhabited system. We also can't drop her on an uninhabited one, for obvious reasons. So, she stays with us. From now on, she's part of the crew, and we help her help us. Got it?”

Carth felt thoroughly chastised. Canderous still seemed a bit irritated however.

“Kionee? Where'd you get off to?” Mission called, poking her head out into the corridor.

“I'll be there in a minute,” Kionee's voice came from the other end of the ship.


~~~

“You know, Kionee, you're not bad at this synthesizer stuff,” Mission complimented through mouthfuls of food as she perched atop a crate in the cargo hold. “I can never get it to turn out anything good.”

“Force of habit,” Kionee replied with a shrug, “You'd get good at it too if you lived on a ship for ten years.”

“That long, huh?” Carth observed, helping himself to the stew she had concocted.

Kionee nodded and settled onto a crate next to Mission. “I guess it has been that long, hasn't it?” she admitted, seeming amazed herself.

“Where's your home anyway? You have to go back home sometime,” Mission observed.

Kionee laughed, “That's a tough question. I was born on Nubia, but my family left when I was about two years old. I've still got a lot of extended family there, and my older brother too, so that makes it a bit more like home than Drall, Rodia, Ithor, Mon Calamari, or Manaan were.”

“You mean to say that you lived in all those places too?” Juhani asked, eavesdropping as she served herself as well.

“For a few years at a time,” Kionee answered, “My dad is Gad Rinnh, you know. He had to found the connections for the company somehow, so I followed him around everywhere until I was old enough to have my own ship like the rest of my siblings.”

“But where's your house then?” Mission asked.

“With my family and friends,” she replied warmly. “When you travel as much as I do, you make a lot of great friends all over the place. I've got great places to go to all over the galaxy when I need it.”

“It's not that strange, Mission, not having one place to call your own,” Carth eased into the conversation, “A lot of soldiers like me have been living continuously with the fleet for years. Independent pilots too, they stick to their ships.”

“And the Jedi,” Juhani pointed out, “We may have grown up in our enclaves as younglings, but we live transiently as soon as we are made padawans.”

“Huh,” Mission concluded for herself. “I guess then it's not such a big deal that I don't got a home no more.”

“A home is what you make of it,” Ev said from the doorway. Carth didn't know when she had arrived in the hold. “It can be more precious than anything else to you, or it could matter as little as a speck on the wind. Missing your place on Taris is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Mission sighed.

“Taris,” Kionee echoed distantly, “I'm so sorry.”

An awkward silence fell over the cargo hold. Ev moved listlessly from her place by the door to an unoccupied crate between Carth and Juhani. Carth briefly reached out and grasped her hand as she passed by him. A slight smile momentarily crossed her lips, but her face didn't brighten up. Without a plate or a meal, she settled quietly onto the crate.

“You okay?” Mission asked her.

“You don't look yourself,” Juhani observed, also concerned.

“I'm fine. I'm fine,” she reassured them unconvincingly.

“If this is about you being Revan again,” Mission guessed boldly, “let it go. We all trust you. We know you're not that person now. You're Ev, our friend who has been with us through thick and thin.”

“Thanks Mission,” Ev chuckled, still seeming down. Mission had been off the mark, but it did cheer her up noticeably.

“I don't see the Dark Lord sitting here with us, you know,” Mission continued encouragingly.

“Gyah!” Kionee suddenly exclaimed, “What's that?”

A small amphibious form hopped out of the shadows, croaking drowsily.

Mission broke out laughing, forgetting the previous train of the conversation, “Oh! It's our gizka.”

“What are you doing with a gizka?” Kionee asked. “I didn't think you guys were the sort to keep a pet on your mission.”

“That was a bit of an accident, actually,” Juhani said.

“Someone put this huge crate of gizka on our ship when we were on Tatooine, but it broke and they got all over the place, and then we—” Mission narrated animatedly.

“Wait, wait,” Kionee cut in quickly, “Back up a second there. You got them by accident on Tatooine? When was that?”

“Gosh, that must have been a month or two ago now,” Mission guessed.

“You mean you guys had this ship even back then?” Kionee exclaimed, “And not the Exchange?”

“What do you mean?” Carth asked.

“Those were supposed to be my gizka!” Kionee laughingly exclaimed.

“I hope that didn't cause too much trouble,” Juhani said, “We don't have them any more.”

“Not too much,” Kionee admitted, “It stressed me out a bunch, but the zoo keepers at Manaan found some by another source.”

“Well, you can have this one now,” Mission offered, squatting down to pick up the single remaining gizka in both hands. It croaked in protest then wriggled free of her hands.

Kionee laughed as it hopped away irritably.


~~~



Carth happened to pass through the garage of the ship when Ev was fiddling with her lightsabers and half-listening to the bickerings of their now two protocol droids. There was an amused smile on her face as she bent over the workbench.

“What do you mean by, what sort of weapon proficiency do I have?” MT-412, Kionee's bronze and blackish-silver plated protocol droid asked incredulously.

“Clarification:” HK-47 replied, hefting his large blaster rifle suggestively, “I have heavy ranged weaponry proficiency, as well as some with blades and projectiles. Addendum: Even that astromechanical squirt T3-M4 can use small basters and flame throwers.”

“I fail to see what prompted this question,” Mt-412 replied evasively, “Why should a protocol droid or an astromech droid need to use weapons?”

“Observation: You mean to say that you have no weapons proficiencies in your functions?” HK observed with mocking mechanical laughter.

“And I say, why should I?” Emtee asked impatiently. Carth was amazed at the range of emotions that the droids were able to exhibit in their mechanical voices. “Protocol and linguistic functions should be enough for a droid such as myself. Were I to devote some of my memory to useless pursuits such as weaponry, my current protocols would be far from optimized.”

“Query: can you speak Selkath?” HK prompted.

“Why, of course. I am fluent in over—” the protocol droid began.

“Drall?” HK interrupted.

“Mistress Kionee can speak that well enough on her own,” Emtee retorted crisply.

“Sand People?” the assassin droid asked proudly.

“Well, no,” Emtee replied, “But that particular language is unnecessary for my line of business.”

“Statement: it is a language I am fluent in, not to mention the high functionality of my numerous other protocols,” HK-47 bragged. “Hypothesis: I don't think we need you on this ship.”

Just then T3-M4 scooted through the garage. He paused briefly and tootled something at the two arguing droids.

“Query: Who asked you?” HK demanded of the smaller droid irritably.

T3 rolled through the room and into the corridor, beeping and rocking its disk-like head around in almost a laughing gesture.

“Perhaps not,” Emtee replied, offended, “But as soon as I am able, I shall return to my employment with Rinnh Imports.” With that, the droid shuffled off, out of the garage.

“Having fun?” Ev asked from the workbench. She seemed to be just finishing the adjustments on her newer lightsaber.

“Statement: underprogrammed droids do offer a sort of amusement that one cannot find in organic meatbags,” HK-47 replied.

“Why do you use that term anyway: meatbag?” Ev asked, clipping both lightsabers back to her belt.

“Statement: Because you programed me to use it, master,” HK responded.

“I did?” Ev asked.

“Explanation: When I was first introduced to your pupil, he asked me what I thought of him, and I informed him of his meatbag status,” he explained.

Ev laughed, “Malak was the original meatbag? I like that.”

Carth chuckled too, as he watched on.

“Statement: You did then as well, master. And so, you altered my programming to continue as such,” HK-47 said. “Statement: I rather liked him when you introduced me, he was efficiently brutal for an organic. But had I known what he would do to you master, I would have illuminated him right then and there. It is most distressing that I was unable to stop his betrayal.”

“Why not?” Ev asked. She seemed genuinely curious.

“Explanation: I had been sent on an assassination mission deep into the outer rim some time before, but I was damaged and unable to return to you,” he replied. “Repetition: But I will say it again, it is a distinct pleasure to be serving you again.”

“You know, sometimes I marvel at your maker, HK,” Ev said distractedly.

“Reminder: It was you, master,” HK replied.

“I really should get those skills back again,” she murmured and leaned back on the workbench. Tapping her head, she said, “Maybe they're buried deep down in here somewhere still.”

“Suggestion:” HK-47 started, “Perhaps your memory core is damaged, not destroyed, and has not yet had the correct stimulus to reactivate it.”

“Maybe,” Ev admitted.

Carth shivered at the idea. If the droid was right, there was no telling just when or how her memories could return.

“Just how do I seem now, HK?” Ev asked, changing the subject, “Compared to before?”

“Assessment: There are some fundamental differences that I have observed,” the droid answered, “Including a disconcerting concern for life, as well as a certain increased vitality. But many things remain the same. However, I find you to be all-together an improved organic.”

Ev breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Thanks for that assessment HK. I've been wondering, myself,” she said.

“Statement: It is natural to wonder at deleted memories, Master. I have done the same myself,” HK commented.

“Well, try to be nice to Kionee and her droid, HK,” Ev advised, “They are our guests and crew by circumstance.”

“Resignation: I will do my best, master,” HK-47 answered. Apparently sensing the end of the conversation, he too strode off, with much more articulated elegance in his movement than MT-412 had.

Carth stepped out of his shadowy corner and caught Ev around the waist, pulling her close.

“Carth,” she murmured.

He tilted his head down to rest his forehead against hers. “Ev, none of us know what's coming, but I know you'll do fine,” he whispered. “Because it's you, I know you can do it.”

“That's what has me worried,” she admitted quietly, “What if something happens to me?”

“We're here behind you Ev, all the way through. Maybe all the rest of us can add up to what you alone can do,” he tried to encourage her.

She said nothing in reply.

“Beautiful, what's on your mind?” he asked.

“There are some things that I alone can face,” she answered.

“Ev, please, let me share some of your burden,” Carth begged, “I can't watch it bear you down like this.”

“Carth, you don't understand,” she murmured enigmatically and buried her face in his shoulder.

“Then help me understand,” he urged gently, “I'm here for you Ev, and I always will be. As long as I live. I promise.”

“Thank you, Carth,” she only whispered.


~~~


Carth sat alone in the central hold of the Ebon Hawk with Jolee and Juhani on the opposite side of the chamber, chatting together in quiet tones. Mission, Zaalbar, and Kionee were in the middle of yet another holovid in the other room. Canderous had been avoiding the company of the crew, and, lately, so had Ev. With the droids off doing their droid-like things, that left just the three of them sitting together in the usual gathering place.

Carth studied the most recent battle reports he had managed to download during their last breather between hyperspace jumps. Nothing new, really. The Republic had a few more victories thanks to Sith overconfidence. The Sith, however, had even more victories over the Republic, thanks to their seemingly endless fleet. There was still no word of Manaan coming out of neutrality and siding with the Republic. Maybe that was still in progress, or maybe it was already done, but, for the safety of the planet, the Republic had kept it quiet. He could only wonder.

“Say Carth,”Jolee said suddenly, “How's Ev doing?”

“What are you asking me for?” Carth asked, taken aback, “I don't presume to know—”

“You go and forget your non-presumptions,” Jolee cut him off irritably. “I'm asking you because you're the most likely to know.”

“I still don't see how...” Carth started.

“We're not blind, Carth,” Juhani said dryly, “And we certainly can sense how you feel about her, as well as how she feels about you. She cares for you, Carth, and you would be the first one she would tell if something was heavy on her mind.”

“That's assuming she would tell anyone,” Carth muttered.

“So I take it she hasn't said anything to you,” Jolee observed.

“Other than that I wouldn't understand,” Carth answered, “Not really. She did mention worrying that if something were to happen to her, the mission would probably fail.”

“She presumes that only she can do this? That we are of no help?” a little anger flared up in Juhani, but she quickly faded back into serenity.

“She may be right,” Jolee pointed out, “She's the only one of us who has been these places before, as Revan. That may tip the proverbial scale. Plus, my saber work ain't what it used to be. I don't know about you, Juhani, but I know I can't take on Malak myself, if it comes to it.”

“Or Bastila,” Juhani added darkly, shaking her head.

“And Bastila,” Jolee said, “Ev's the only one who can really get into that girl's head.”

“You don't suppose she's gotten like this because of Bastila?” Carth asked under a small gasp, “Could something have happened to Bastila?”

“Something already has,” Jolee replied dryly, “Malak has her. The question is more: what sort of terrible thing, exactly, has he done to her?”

“Perhaps she has already fallen,” Juhani suggested quietly, “That would be worry enough for Ev.”

“Could Bastila be using her bond with Ev against her, trying to turn her to the Dark Side too?” Carth asked, as the horrific idea struck him.

“I would rather not presume she has fallen at all,” Juhani cut in, “I want to believe that she is strong and resisting Darth Malak even now.”

“Well, if she had,” Jolee began, stressing the 'if' to appease Juhani, “I doubt she could. Not directly at least. From what I know of Force bonds, which is not much, one person can't control the other. It's more like a Force-sensitive doctor reading your vitals all the time: emotions and well-being but not thoughts. They couldn't make each other think certain thoughts, not directly anyway. Maybe one of them could deliberately use her own emotions to get the other to act a certain way in response. It would be manipulative, but after being in each other's heads for this long already, Bastila would know how to get certain reactions out of Ev, if she wanted to.”

“Maybe it would be better for Ev to shield herself against Bastila,” Juhani suggested meekly.

“It would be just as dangerous as it would be not to,” Jolee argued.

Carth agreed with the old man, “Bastila is a powerful weapon. Going into this, we need to know whose fingers are on the trigger: ours or theirs.”

“At Ev's expense?” Juhani asked.

Carth sighed. “Ev is strong. Stronger than any of us. We just have to keep being there to support her,” Carth said, “This mission really does rest on her shoulders now, but we can help carry that weight too. She needs us as her support as much as we need her at the helm.”

“You're sure of that?” Juhani asked.

“No one can stand alone like that, under so much pressure,” Carth said.

“Only the great misunderstood geniuses ever have,” Jolee commented, “But Roan'ev, the Revanchist, was one of those.”


~~~


As they drew nearer and nearer to their destination, the rest of the crew saw less and less of Ev. Sometimes she appeared at meal times. Other times, not. What she had told the crew, in mumbled tones, was that she needed time to meditate. Lots of it, apparently. Her usual out-of-the-way spot of the upper gun turret became her meditation sanctuary, sealing the door behind her.

And so she had passed the last two and a half days in seclusion, rising earlier and going to bed later than any of the other members of the crew.

There was only about one standard day left until they came out of hyperspace at their final destination. Carth just couldn't let Ev, in her brooding, slip away from him. Long after the rest of the crew had retired for the night, still on Korriban's day schedule, Carth sat up alone in the main hold. While he had a datapad containing reports in his hands, he had already read it over twice. He gazed at it without reading the words that scrolled along. His attention focused elsewhere, listening for signs of Ev coming down from the gun turret.

Carth wasn't sure for exactly how long he sat there waiting, thinking about nothing in particular and yet worrying even still.

At one point, the astromech droid T3-M4 rolled through the chamber. T3 stopped momentarily and turned his visual sensors on Carth, tweeting something before continuing on his way. Moments later, the droid remote Cresh swooped through in T3's wake.

“Telling me to go to bed, are you?” Carth wondered out loud as the droids retreated. He looked back down at the datapad, eyes skimming over the headings once again. More time passed.

Finally, there came the sound of metal creaking against metal from just down the corridor. Carth put down the datapad and stiffly rose to his feet. He had hardly taken two steps towards the hallway when he heard another voice speaking.

“Finally coming down to join the living?” Canderous observed with a dry chuckle. He too had been waiting.

“I'd say the same about you,” Ev replied, swinging down the ladder from above.

Canderous rumbled another low chuckle, “Fair enough. Are you going to be ready for this Star Forge?”

“Force willing,” Ev said. “Are you?”

“I've been wondering that myself,” Canderous admitted.

This isn't going to be a quick conversation. Carth hung back and leaned against the wall, listening. He didn't need to announce his presence or interrupt.

“I thought you'd be eager to get in there and blow things up,” Ev observed.

“I thought I would be too,” Canderous said in a voice that seemed lightly self-mocking. “That fight on Korriban really did change me, Ev.”

Ev remained silent, waiting for him to continue.

“I can't get excited about just killing any more,” he sounded conflicted, “I'm tired of seeking for the glory in battle, that rush of fighting, even the Code of the Mandalorians. So many of my comrades died—so many unrelated people died just for the sake of honor and glory.”

“That doesn't sound much like a Mandalorian to me,” Ev observed. Carth flinched in the shadows, expecting Canderous to lash back. “I thought you were proud of your people.”

“Then I guess I'm not really a Mandalorian any more,” Canderous admitted, “Not by the old code anyway. Traveling around and seeing what the clans have reduced themselves to; there's no place in this galaxy for us any more. We're thugs and war mongers. We destroyed, we raped, we killed. Not just the worlds we attacked, but ourselves. The galaxy doesn't want us any more, and with good reason.”

Ev reached up and put a hand on Canderous' shoulder. “After this war, what they're calling the 'Jedi Civil War,' I doubt they'll want us Jedi around either,” she said. “The galaxy has been ravaged by war for too long. Most people aren't warriors, or even soldiers; just normal people trying to live their lives. The Mandalorians, the Sith, the Jedi, I think most people would be happier without us.”

Carth almost butt in to argue, but held his tongue. This wasn't his conversation. The Jedi are keepers of the peace! Of course we still want you!

“Maybe there will come a time in the future when the Clans can be reborn again, in a better light,” Canderous said with a sigh, “Under a different banner.”

“Maybe,” Ev agreed. “And maybe there will even be a need for them then.”

“But there's no point in dreaming about the future now,” Canderous broke away from the topic, “We've got bigger things ahead. Once this thing is over, if we survive it all, maybe then...”

“You'll find your place in this ever-changing galaxy, Canderous,” Ev said confidently, “It will certainly be easier for you than for some ex-Sith Lord turned hero.”

“You've got your work cut out for you,” Canderous chuckled, “Now, don't you think this means I've gone all squeamish or something. I'll fight with you to the end on this. Your leadership and cause is worthy of my skills.”

“Glad to have you aboard, Canderous,” Ev said warmly. With that, Canderous walked away towards the men's bunk room. As soon as he was out of sight, Ev slumped back against the ladder to the gun turret, as if yet another weight had been added to her shoulders.

Carth didn't feel right barging into her personal thoughts right after that conversation, and yet, he couldn't feel right watching her stand dejectedly like that. In the end, the later sentiment won out.

“Ev,” he said, quietly stepping towards her.

“Carth!” she exclaimed and straightened up, clearly surprised to see him there. She hadn't even sensed him.

“Ev, how are you doing?” he asked quickly, clasping his hands on her shoulders. “What's bothering you?”

“I don't want to talk about that right now,” she said, looking away.

“Well, then what...” Carth started.

“Carth, I don't want to talk about anything right now,” she rephrased and wrapped her arms around him, leaning up for a kiss.

Carth held her closer. For the moment, he had to let his worries go and let Ev have her way.


~~~


In the morning, Ev almost seemed like all of her self-imposed solitude hadn't happened at all. Her posture was straight and there was that familiar fire in her eyes. If it wasn't for that deep, dark worry Carth sensed behind the fire, he would have thought she had returned completely to normal.

Once everyone was awake and lucid enough to participate in a discussion, she gathered the entire crew, droids included, in the main hold of the Ebon Hawk.

“We have approximately five standard hours before we emerge at our destination,” Ev announced when they had all assembled. All of the chairs were quickly filled, leaving Canderous and Juhani to lean in the doorways as they listened. Ev strolled around the central consul in the chamber with a purposeful leisureness, measuring each of her crew mates with brief gaze before continuing her pacing. “I would like to say that this is the last stop in our journey towards the Star Forge, but that is merely a guess. I can hope it's a good one, however.

“We really don't know what we're flying into, but, if this is truly the system that houses the Star Forge, we can gather a few things that are very likely. First: this Star Forge is some sort of ancient weapon built by the Builders, who left our scattered star maps across the galaxy. It was discovered by Revan—myself—and Malak about five years back before we began the aggression against the galaxy. Due to the size and uniqueness of the fleet that we returned with and that the Sith continue to use, I suspect that this Star Forge is at the very least an advanced shipyard, but more likely the factory that has been fueling the Sith's war effort since it began.

“Our directive is then to get the Star Forge out of the hands of the Sith. If we can capture it for the Republic, that is ideal. However, that is likely to be much more difficult. If it is not possible, we must either disable or destroy it,” Ev continued, still strolling around the room.

“I respect your skills,” Canderous said during her pause, “But how do you expect our little freighter and crew to take out some entire Sith factory?”

“A good point,” Ev nodded, “I should rephrase: we are here to facilitate the destruction or capture of the Star Forge. Carth has already contacted Admiral Dodonna of the Republic Navy and told her of our mission and trajectory. She knows the coordinates of this system already and has promised to ready a significant fleet within easy jumping distance of our system. If she has held up her end of the deal, all we have to do contact her when we believe it is necessary for the fleet to arrive. Until then, we must soften the defenses and collect information that will help the fleet be successful.”

Canderous nodded approvingly.

“We can also be sure that there will be a large Sith presence in the system,” Ev continued, “I have calculated our jump to initially take us in at the far reaches of the system, hopefully well outside the Sith's sensors. As we deem it safe, we can go in for a closer look.”

“What about the people who built the Star Forge?” Mission asked.

“Also a good question,” Ev replied, “It is also entirely possible that these Builders may still be alive in this system. Although we have seen no signs of them working for the Sith elsewhere in the galaxy, perhaps they have been hired or enslaved to work on the Star Forge, their own technology. Seeing as that's a possibility, it's worth putting together all we know about them.

“As we saw from their overseer droid on Dantooine, the Builders ruled over what they called the Infinite Empire, which existed about 20,000 years ago, before the establishment of the Galactic Republic or the invention of the hyperdrive. At the very least, we know they controlled Dantooine, Manaan, Kashyyyk, Tatooine, and probably Korriban temporarily,” Ev explained, “As far as we can tell, there are no written records, Republic or otherwise, that tell of their existence. We did have the luck to stumble upon oral histories that described them, however.”

“Where?” Juhani asked shrewdly.

“While Carth and I were being held by the Sand People on Tatooine, we convinced them to allow us to speak to their Storyteller, a historian for their tribe and people. According to this Storyteller, and may a Sand Person gut me if I repeat this incorrectly, Tatooine was once a lush world. Then the Builders came and enslaved them, taking members of their species off-world for work elsewhere in the galaxy. Eventually, the Sand People put up a resistance against their overlords, sabotaging the Builder's machinery. The Builders struck back viciously; the bombardment from space utterly destroying the ecosystem and thus turning the planet into a waste land. Around the same time, a species-wide plague struck the Builders and only the Builders. They soon disappeared form Tatooine's history.”

“It seems such a shame to waste a world like that,” Kionee murmured.

Ev didn't respond directly to her, but continued, “We have also seen evidence that the Builders used their conquered worlds for their own purposes. The hologram we spoke with on Kashyyyk suggested that the forests, the creatures, and even the Wookiees themselves were purposefully evolved to make Kashyyyk a garden world of exports for the rest of the Infinite Empire.”

Zaalbar warbled something uncomfortably.

“Yes, but that does mean that your people are here now,” Ev pointed out. “Given the statues we found near the star map on Tatooine, it is reasonable to believe that the Builders themselves were the species of that humanoid we saw in the holoprojection in the Shadow Lands.”

“What about Manaan, Dantooine, and Korriban?” Jolee asked. “Any clues from there?”

“The only thing I can guess from Manaan is that it wasn't always an oceanic planet exclusively. The firaxen sharks are a very aggressive part of the ecosystem, making for something of a monoculture in the areas they reside. That suggests to me that they were an introduced species. Manaan could have been the Builders' marina, for food exports,” Ev hypothesized. “Then there's Korriban. From the dating the archaeologists were getting on Korriban, it seems that the ancient Sith Empire and the Builders were contemporaries. Either they could have been enemies, allies, or both, but the Sith presence seems to have won out on Korriban. Dantooine has a pretty small mark from the Builders too. The ruins we went to weren't the only of their kind on the planet. There were numerous others, scattered about that particular continent. I suspect it was colonized and added to the empire fairly late in the scheme of things, as the overseer droid said that no Builders had visited that temple since its creation. Perhaps that's why the Builders didn't leave as much of a mark.”

“All this still doesn't explain how the Builders were able to collect and empire like that before the hyperdrive, though,” Carth observed.

“They must have had some kind of technology of their own like our modern hyperdrive,” Ev replied, “But we do know, at the height of their civilization, they were very powerful. The plague could have wiped them all out. Statistically speaking, that is unlikely. Somewhere in the galaxy, a small pocket of resistant individuals must have survived.”

“And where we're headed is the most likely spot, huh?” Canderous observed, “If they went through the trouble to build a super weapon, factory, or whatever, they probably did it from their home world.”

Ev nodded, “I agree. So it's a good idea to be ready for them.”

Mission asked hesitantly, “Is Malak going to be there?”

Ev shook her head, “I won't know until we get there, but there will be no mistaking his presence in the Force once we do arrive.”

“What about Bastila,” Jolee asked darkly.

“It's the same, I won't know until we get there,” Ev's even steps hiccuped for a moment as she answered quickly.

“Don't play coy with me,” Jolee warned gruffly, “You know what I mean. You've got that bond with her. You know what's going on in her head. And you know as well as any of the rest of us do that Bastila on Malak's side could mean disaster for this whole mission. Fess up.”

Ev sighed, stopped, and faced Jolee directly. “It's a fair question, and I really should stop avoiding it,” she said with some reluctance, but her words were still clear and even, “In the past two weeks or so, Bastila has gone from being defiantly in pain, to fearful, to confused, to angry, to hateful. I can't know exactly what's going on in her head, but—”

“But that sounds like a fall to the Dark Side to me,” Juhani observed.

“There is always the possibility that she is still in captivity, succumbing to these feelings,” Ev offered, but with little optimism, “It is also possible that she has indeed fallen, but will not ally herself with Malak. Maybe her pride will get in the way of stooping to become his apprentice.”

“You don't sound convinced,” Jolee said.

“I'm not,” Ev sighed, “In fact, I think we'll probably meet her face to face, standing right beside Malak. If she has fallen, then Malak knows where we're headed, and he's probably already there waiting for us, with Bastila as his perfect weapon against our invading fleet.”

“Then it looks like knocking out Bastila is one of our priorities before the bulk of the fleet arrives,” Canderous added.

Ev nodded. A heavy silence hung over the room. No one liked the idea of killing an old friend or the idea of fighting against her battle meditation. Clearing her throat, Ev collected her confidence about her again, “For entry into the system, I want everyone at their positions from our exit from Korriban.”

“Even me?” Kionee asked tentatively.

“Yes,” Ev answered, “I have the tendency to have sudden visions when we pass close to something from my past, which takes me out of action. We need someone more reliable as co-pilot for this. I'll do what supervision I can. Although we are jumping to the far edge of the system, there is no telling exactly where they Sith have stationed patrols or even probes. We have to be ready for anything. Any other questions?” None came. “Well,” she started again, “You have a few hours left to rest and get yourselves ready for what's to come. Prepare yourselves physically and internally for this. We may have to be on the move much longer than we like and we will probably face the hardest battles we have yet. I want you all at your peak condition. We will assemble at our assigned positions fifteen standard minutes before the scheduled end of the jump.”

Taking it as a clear dismissal, the crew dispersed. Carth sauntered over to Ev and clapped her proudly on the shoulder, “I can see why they let you be a general.”


~~~


Everyone was in position, waiting anxiously to see if this truly was the end of their journey, and just what the Star Forge was.

“Returning to realspace in five, four,” Ev's voice announced over the ship-wide comm, “three, two, one.”

With a slight jolt, the Ebon Hawk snapped out of hyperspace. Carth's immediate concern was searching for enemy craft, but when there proved to be none near by, he relaxed and surveyed the system through their front view port. Not far off, he could see a serenely blue planet patched over with wispy white clouds. From what he could see, it had at least three small satellites.

Ev stepped up behind him and Kionee, gazing out as well. “What's that?” she murmured. Checking over his shoulder at her, Carth followed her gaze. Past the cerulean planet, she squinted at the blazing white star. Drawn up from the sun's surface, Cart could faintly see a long trail of light, thin as a needle.

“That's not natural,” Carth observed as he too squinted at it.

“I agree,” Ev nodded gravely, “Solar flares and solar winds are one thing, but that is steady and strong. Let's get in for a closer look.” Turning her attention to the communications deck, she asked, “Any sign of the Sith?”

“I'm getting a lot of chatter and static on the loose radio waves,” Mission reported, “Coming from that planet and closer to the sun.”

“Nothing on the sensors yet, however,” Juhani added.

“We'll have to be cautious then,” Ev concluded slowly, “What sort of things are they saying, Mission. Is it in Basic?”

“It's a lot of mush, but I did catch 'Star Forge' and 'Malak' a couple of times,” Mission answered.

“I think we've found the place then,” Ev sighed. Carth couldn't bring himself to feel excited either. They may have found the Sith's secret to winning the war, but there was a lot to surmount between now and their own victory. “Jolee, what's the makeup of that planet and its moons?”

“Give me another second, would you?” Jolee grumbled, “Let's see. The planet is terrestrial, it's outer surface is largely water with an oxygen atmosphere. Not sure about the core yet, though. Looks like a good retreat for us if need be.”

“We're staying in space for now, but that's good to know,” Ev replied curtly. “And the moons?”

“The smallest one has some interesting metal content that could give us good cover and scramble the Sith's sensors, if that's what you're looking for,” Jolee reported.

“And our sensors too as well,” Ev replied, “No thanks. What are our other options?”

“The largest moon is just a dry ball of rock, but it's big enough to mask our presence. Plus, it's on the day side of the planet right now,” Jolee replied.

“Good,” Ev nodded and walked back into the cockpit, “T3, calculate a jump to get us as near to that big moon as we safely can.” She clicked the comm. “Gunners, get ready. We may find company on the other side of this.”

“Gotcha,” Canderous replied over the comm. Shortly thereafter, Zaalbar warbled affirmatively. He was heard well enough throughout the ship without use of the comm.

“You two get ready for some fancy flying too,” Ev advised Carth and Kionee in a low voice.

“Do you think this is the place?” Kionee asked.

“It seems like we were right after all,” Ev nodded, “Mission picked up loose radio waves that mentioned the Star Forge and Darth Malak. That is unmistakable Sith chatter. If this isn't the Star Forge system, I can't think of what a whole lot of Sith would be doing out in the Unknown Regions.”

“Malak's here then?” Carth asked darkly.

Ev took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She shook her head and opened them again. “I don't know,” she admitted, with a hint of frustration, “The Dark Side is too strong here. It's more than... more than just a gathering of Dark Jedi. There is something powerfully Dark in this system too, but it's obscuring individual signatures in the Force.”

“You don't suppose it could be the Star Forge itself?” Carth suggested.

“It's a possibility,” Ev replied.

Just then T3-M4 twittered proudly, rocking his head disk back and forth from where he sat plugged into the ship's computer.

“Looks like we're good to go,” Ev said, “Kionee, punch it.”

“Okay,” Kionee responded, and slid the hyperdrive's handle forward.

Once again, the Ebon Hawk leaped into hyperspace. It was a tense three minutes as they waited.

Finally, Ev counted down, “Three, two, one: disengage.”

Kionee reacted immediately, pulling the handle back again. A huge blackish-gray moon hung before them, filling nearly their entire view port.

“So far, so good,” Ev murmured, then called to her team on the communications deck, “How are things looking back there?”

“We are alone on this side of the moon,” Juhani called back, “But there is a rather large Sith fleet between here and the star.”

“Alright Carth, edge us around for a better look,” Ev ordered eagerly.

“Got it,” Carth nodded and took up the controls. Gradually, he moved east around the rocky moon's surface. It didn't have any kind of atmosphere to speak of, leaving little interference for his low flying. Slowly, they came around onto the day side of the moon into the sunlight.

Kionee gasped and Ev sucked in a quick breath. Over the moon's horizon countless glittering points floating in space. The silver curvature of the Sith's capital ships were unmistakable, and there were easily fifty of them or more. Darting around them like tiny fish in the sea were countless more squads of Sith fighters.

“That is a respectable fleet,” Canderous observed over the comm.

Now closer to the sun, the tall, thin spike of light rising out of it looked stranger still. At the very end of the stream of light was something bulbous and unnatural.

Ev saw it too. “T3, get us a holo capture of that thing coming out of the sun and magnify it,” she ordered.

Beeping and tweeting, the droid complied. The small holoprojector on the ship's dashboard immediately switched on of its on accord and rapidly zoomed in on the anomaly above the sun. Finally, it came to rest on what appeared to be a massive space station. Radiating out of a large spherical structure, four gargantuan triangular fins gave the station the appearance of a diamond-shaped prism.

“The Star Forge,” Ev breathed. She quickly snapped out of her awe, ordering, “Carth, get me Admiral Dodonna.”

Without hesitation, he hailed the Libra and turned the comm over to Ev.

“This is Padawan Evrue Pell, requesting permission to speak with Admiral Dodonna,” Ev pronounced crisply.

“Permission already granted,” came Dodonna's voice.

“I'm sending you a holo of what we believe to be the Star Forge, as well as updated coordinates,” Ev said succinctly.

“Understood,” Dodonna replied, a few moments later, after she had evidently received the transmission, she exclaimed, “That's the Star Forge? It's a massive space station. And the fleet!”

“It seems to be a factory for the Sith's fleet,” Ev added. “We will do what reconnaissance we can while waiting for your reinforcements.”

“These weren't numbers we were expecting to face,” the admiral couldn't hide the concern in her voice.

“True, but we will have surprise on our side,” Ev assured her. “Given that this is a factory, it is also likely that a number of those don't have a full crew yet. I'm sure you have data on the Sith's recruitment. Your people can work those numbers.”

“I will now insist on the Jedi sending Master Sunrider along to aid in this battle,” Admiral Dodonna said, “With the potential of Bastila against us and the size of that fleet, we need another Jedi with battle mediation on our side.”

“We will await your arrival, Admiral,” Ev replied.

“Good,” she answered, “Expect our first ships in approximately 35 standard hours.”

“Understood,” Ev replied, “Ebon Hawk out.”

“Well, that's done,” Ev let out a sigh of relief, “Now we wait, and collect what data we can. Carth, find us a nice crater on this moon to touch down in.”

Before Carth could comply, Juhani called urgently, “Sith fighters, coming in fast!”

“I thought we were beyond their sensor range!” Jolee exclaimed in protest.

Everyone reacted as they should. Canderous and Zaalbar immediately began firing the ships guns. Carth took the ship in a wide arc away from the moon, darting around the squadron of fighters.

One dropped in front of the ship, trying to cut them off. Almost immediately it exploded under the Ebon Hawk's laser fire. Carth didn't have time for much of a course correction, leading the ship to blast through the debris. He heard a few thunks as some pieces of the fighter rebounded off their shields.

“Nice shot!” Canderous complimented Zaalbar over the intercom.

“How are the shields doing?” Ev asked Kionee.

“They're at ninety percent,” Kionee reported. The ship rocked as a wing of fighters flew by, letting loose their own fire. “Okay, eighty-two percent,” she corrected.

“Any sign of more fighters coming our way?” Ev called back down the hall.

“Just these two wings,” Juhani replied. “The rest of the fleet doesn't seem to have noticed us.”

Carth came around for another pass, pushing the Hawk into a swerving dive farther from the moon as he tried to shake two of the fighters from their tail.

“Let's keep it that way,” Ev said loudly, “Gunners, we need to get rid of all of these ships as fast as we can. Word can't get back to the greater fleet that we're here.”

“Understood,” Canderous called back, the ship releasing more laser shots as he spoke.

The full wing came around to flank Carth despite all of his evasive flying. Lasers shot every direction between the fighters and the Ebon Hawk. Suddenly, two of the fighters exploded, one after another. An orphaned wing careened into the third, sending it spinning out of control away from the Hawk.

That brought it down to three enemy fighters, and, at least for the moment, only two to worry about.

“Those two fighters are tailing us again, attempting to get a missile lock,” Juhani reported quickly.

Carth glanced down at his on display and confirmed her assessment. The two fighters maintained a slightly higher plane of flight than the Ebon Hawk. “If that's the case...” Carth murmured. He abruptly cut the engines, letting the two fighters rocket right over them, then reengaged them and full throttle.

The gunners reacted just as he hoped they would. It was an old trick, but the fighters hadn't been expecting it. The Ebon Hawk's guns tore them to pieces as they struggled to get the ship back in their sights. Carth breathed a sigh of relief. Only one left now...

“Juhani, where's that last ship?” Ev asked, mild alarm in her voice.

“Fleeing back towards the fleet,” Juhani replied. She too sounded worried.

Sure enough, trailing sparks, a single Sith fighter streaked away from them, as fast as its damaged hull would allow.

“Catch that ship,” Ev ordered, “This ship is supposed to be one of the fastest in the galaxy. Let's see what it can do.”

Setting his jaw determinedly, Carth ran his fingers over the controls, pushing the ship to its maximum. They should be able to outrun a damaged fighter, but they had to do it quickly. There was no point in taking any chances.

Ev seemed to think the same, “Kionee. Divert all power from the rear shields to the thrusters. We need all the speed we can get.”

“I'm on it,” Kionee replied.

It didn't take long for them to catch up with the fleeing fighter, but even so, Carth had begun to worry. Are we inside the sensor zone yet? Did it already send a short range transmission?

The fighter suddenly slowed. “Having engine trouble, I wonder?” Ev mused out loud, then announced, “Gunners, get ready.”

Zaalbar and Canderous took care of it with ease, leaving only distorted fragments of durasteel behind. Carth slowed the ship's trajectory and prepared to turn around.

“Let's get back to the cover of that moon. Someone may have noticed us even still,” Ev advised.

As Carth prepared to follow her orders, suddenly the ship shook and rattled. Ev lost her balance and stumbled against the panels on the wall.

“We're hit?” Mission exclaimed.

“No, the shields are still at full,” Kionee replied, confused, as the ship continued to pitch and rock.

“The stabilizer is totally fried,” Carth noticed immediately as he scanned the displays. There's no way we can safely stay out in space like this. This is going to need repairs before we do anything else.

“I bet it's a disruptor field protecting the fleet,” Jolee suggested at a holler.

“That doesn't help us much now,” Kionee yelled back, “This isn't something we can fix in orbit.” The young freighter pilot evidently had some experience with repairs as well.

“I'm going to take her down on that planet,” Carth announced, “Hang on everyone, it's going to be a bumpy ride!”

- Next Part -

 

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