No Greater Love
by John R. Plunkett

"I hate space travel," Hoger growled. He hated the hard-cushioned chairs with inadequate legroom and seats too narrow for his admittedly ample buttocks. Spending a dozen hours trapped in one- there wasn't anywhere to walk around even when the captain let people out of their seats- left every joint in Hoger's body screaming in agony. The closed, artificial atmosphere made him queasy even with the fresh air vent fully open. His in flight meal had looked and tasted like a choice selection of industrial plastics. Trying to watch the tiny view screen fitted on the back of the seat in front of him would make him puke even if the insipid entertainment programming didn't. Reading, of course, was right out. If he tried to sleep he woke up thinking the ship was about to fly apart. Which left nothing to do but sit and think about all the things that could go wrong. Which, he supposed, was what really bothered him. He'd endured considerably worse physical discomfort in his day but he'd never liked waiting.

"Then next time don't fly coach," Mackey commented. In spite of his long, gangly limbs he sprawled in his chair as if he hadn't a bone in his body. A dark blue shirt with the sleeves ripped off clothed his lean, bony torso, leaving his surprisingly muscular shoulders bare. Acid washed blue jeans and battered cowboy boots completed the ensemble. A patch of wild, dark auburn hair crowned his narrow head and sharp featured face. His chin and forefinger bobbed in time with music communicated to him through a pair of speaker plugs inserted in his ears. Cords from the plugs attached to a small box clasped loosely in his left hand.

Hoger grunted, unzipping his black leather jacket to reveal a thick, barrel-like chest clothed in nothing but a white tank top. The beginnings of a pot belly hung over the belt- secured by a massive silver buckle- holding up his black leather pants. A pair of shiny black boots with high heels, pointed toes, and silver decorations housed his enormous feet. From the vest pocket of his jacket he drew a comb and touched up his 'do, a pompadour, duck tail, and sideburns slicked down with so much gel it gleamed like his boots. His hair's deep black color matched his outfit but the lines on his fleshy, squarish face suggested someone much older.

"Look at that," Mackey commented, tapping the window beside him.

Hoger leaned forward to see past Mackey. He noticed other people along his side of the ship peering through their windows and chattering excitedly. After a moment he saw a cluster of lights slide past.

"What's that, Mommy?" asked a little boy seated directly in front of Hoger.

"It's an Imperial TIE fighter," Hoger replied.

"Really?" The boy twisted around. "What's it doing?"

"Inspecting us for contraband, probably," Hoger replied.

"Wow." The boy's eyes went large.

"What are they doing here?" his mother demanded apprehensively.

"Well, Ma'am, the Valda system happens to sit on the only safe hyper-space route into the Karnawan Cluster," Hoger explained. "There's other ways, but only a brave- or foolish- pilot would try them. 'Cause of that, rumor has it, the Rebs keep a network of bases in there. Any force sent to root 'em out has to come through here so there's always plenty of warning. The Rebs skedaddle and come back when the heat's off. The Emperor can't have that, naturally, so he's sent a big task force that'll stay in there until it gets the job done. But all the supplies to keep it going have to come through here. If the Rebs snuck in a team and disabled the High Port the task force would have to pull out. If the blowup happened at a particularly bad time the Rebs might even wipe out the task force. Nobody fights worth a damn when they're outa food, outa ammo, and outa spares."

"Then tell us, oh great teacher, why the Empire doesn't just close the system," Mackey put in, grinning in a particularly impudent manner.

Hoger shot him a black look. "Because, oh ignorant pupil, the Valdan government won't let 'em. On account of all the trade going through here- and the unsavory reputation of the Cluster- Valda's planetary defenses are on par with any Core world. If the Empire tried to reduce 'em it would take a year and a fleet as big as the one they're sending through. I guess the Emperor thinks it's cheaper to pay the Valdans than fight 'em. And the Valdans, they made the Empire leave the High Port open to commercial traffic while they're usin' it."

"You seem pretty well informed on the situation," the woman commented, more than a little suspiciously.

Hoger sighed. Sign of the times. "We're entertainers, Ma'am. Wouldn't do to take a gig without known' what's happenin' on the ground. Nothin' secret about any of that; I got it all straight outa official newscasts. Fact is, it's why we're here. All them Imperial troopies'll need a lot of entertain' what with all that guardin' and stuff." He grinned broadly. "I never met a soldier what didn't have more money'n he knew what to do with. We could stay here for the duration and end up livin' like Senators."

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," a brisk voice announced over the PA. "We apologize again for the delay, but you'll no doubt be glad to know we've been passed by customs and are cleared to dock. We'll be arriving at Chiwa High Port in approximately fifteen minutes. Please remain in your seats until docking is complete and cabin pressure has equalized. On behalf of myself and the rest of the crew, thank you for flying with Trans-Valda Spaceways."

"There it is," Mackey said, tapping the window.

What looked like an enormous, glittering snowflake slid into view. Myriad points of light filled the sky around it, some zipping like fireflies, others moving more sedately. Most of the lights represented shuttles, liners, and freighters. Quite a number of them, though, were frigates, cruisers, and star fighters.

Hoger's eyes narrowed. Did the elders of Valda really think the Empire would keep its promises? Did they realize that by giving the Empire access but leaving the port open for civilian traffic they created a gaping security hole that practically begged the Rebellion to send a covert ops team and blow the place to kingdom come? Did they think that, given what was at stake, the Rebellion wouldn't respond? Given his druthers Hoger would not have chosen to come but the band couldn't afford to turn down such a lucrative opportunity.

"Here we go," Mackey said as the ship gently nosed up to the side of the High Port. Hoger heard a series of thuds and clanks as the station's docking clamps took hold and pulled the ship into place against the transfer lock.

"Here we go indeed." Hoger unbuckled his seatbelt.

"I am so glad this trip is over," the fellow seated directly behind Hoger said, rising to his feet and stretching. Despite his slender build and almost effeminate features he looked human enough... if one ignored his sharply pointed ears, deep lavender eyes, and charcoal gray skin. Straight, snow white hair hung down to the middle of his back. A pair of light gray tights clung to him so closely he almost might as well be naked. A lavender vest and a dark blue, loose fitting jacket clothed his torso. Gartered sandals adorned his feet.

"You get no argument from me on that one, Delan," Hoger replied. "How are you, Kitzie?"

The woman seated beside Delan half rose, rubbing her buttocks. "Sore," she replied shortly. "You try sitting on your tail for hours and hours."

Hoger grinned. Kitzie meant that literally; a large, voluminously furred tail, black with a broad, white stripe along its top, sprang from the base of her spine. Obviously she wasn't human though her body looked quite pleasingly humanoid. Her tail drew attention to her broad, shapely hips, which connected via a trim waist to a nicely formed torso sporting a pair of very large but very round breasts. Silky black fur coated her all over except for a white patch starting on her chin and running down the front of her body to her crotch and a pair of parallel white stripes starting on her forehead and running down the length of her spine. Her head didn't look human at all; her face extended out into a pointed muzzle complete with sharp, clearly carnivorous teeth. Round, mouse-like ears protruded through a wavy white mane that spilled down to below her shoulder blades. She wore a tiny little white dress that left as much of her torso bare as decency permitted; a very short skirt with red pleats only just covered her ample hips and meaty thighs.

"Ahh, it wouldn't be so bad if your ass wasn't so big," Georgia commented from the seat behind Delan. She looked exactly like Kitzie, both physically and in dress.

"Look who's talking, thunder thighs!" Kitzie retorted.

"There better be time to eat before the show," Gwine put in. She, in turn, looked identical to the other two.

"You could stand to miss a meal," Georgia said, pinching Gwine's buttocks.

Gwine snorted. "The way you sock it away I'm surprised we don't have to roll you off the ship."

"Now now, ladies," Hoger admonished as Gwine opened her mouth to retort. "There will be time to eat before the gig. I need something. Everybody knows that airline meals aren't real food."

Kitzie sighed. "I know it's kind of late-" she glanced at him apprehensively- "But are you sure we're up to this?"

"Absolutely," Hoger replied. "In fact... when you ladies do your thing I guarantee you'll knock 'em out."

The girls giggled. Delan chuckled. Mackey grinned broadly. Hoger smiled briefly, an expression that didn't quite reach his eyes. "'Kay, troops. Grab your duds and let's roll."

The girls took soft bags from the overhead compartments and slung them over their shoulders. Delan retrieved a leather back pack. From the vest pocket of his jacket Hoger produced a pair of black lensed sunglasses with thick, silvered frames. He shook them open with a flourish and settled them carefully onto his prominent, somewhat bulbous nose. With Hoger taking the lead the five of them inserted themselves into the line of passengers and shuffled their way toward the exit.

A stewardess waited by the transfer lock. "Thank you, watch your step," she said to each passenger in a slightly sing-song voice. "Thank you, watch your step-"

"Thank you," Hoger said, flashing his best professional smile. "Thank you very much." He took her delicate hand briefly in his much larger one. She stared, slightly gape-mouthed, as Hoger strode briskly up the jetway. She actually forgot to greet Mackey, then stumbled badly while greeting Delan. By the time Kitzie appeared she was back in stride.

The jetway opened onto a wide concourse. Carpeted waiting areas with seats lined one side, shops and restaurants the other. An arched, transparent ceiling let passengers watch ships coming and going. People strode briskly along the wide, tiled walkway lined with potted trees and shrubs but not enough to make it seem crowded. Hoger and the others found themselves amidst a milling throng of passengers bottled up in a waiting area. A security station- obviously temporary and hastily erected- funneled people one at a time through a detector frame. Two security officers, obviously locals, operated the equipment. Two others stood discreetly by, watching the crowd.

Behind them stood two Imperial stormtroopers, carrying their blaster rifles at high port.

People gasped and stared at the stormtroopers so Hoger did too. They looked as shockingly out of place as a gundark at a wedding. Their white body armor didn't seem like it should look so menacing but it did. The helmets, with their impenetrable black eye lenses and jagged, down-turned mouth slits formed a grotesque parody of human features. They reminded Hoger of skeletons. The undead minions of the evil wizard king, he thought. It was so horrifyingly apropos that he shivered.

"Do they think a Reb strike team's gonna burst out of a shuttle, guns blazing?" Mackey whispered into Hoger's ear.

The Rebellion had done things like that, Hoger knew. When you couldn't face your enemy in a stand-up fight you found... creative ways to cause trouble. "Probably they're just to remind everybody who's really in charge."

When his turn came Hoger presented his ID card. When the officer passed it through his hand-scanner his eyes widened. "Oh, my word! You're really him! Bennie, of Bennie and the Jets!"

"That's right, son." Hoger took his ID card with his left hand and shook with his right. The officer looked like a kid, hardly more than a teenager. "We'll be playing at the Belter's Bolt-Hole. Why don't'cha come 'round 'n see us?" Hoger offered a card, winking ostentatiously. "Jus' show that at the door. And bring a date. Tell her you're a close personal friend 'a mine." He grinned lasciviously.

"Oh, thank you!" The guard took the card as if it were the most precious thing in the galaxy. his eyes shining. "I'll be there, I promise!"

"Was that really necessary?" Delan asked once the group had passed the check point.

"What was I supposed to do?" Hoger countered, shrugging. "'Sides, I'd'a though you'd be glad. How often does a small-time band like us find a fan in a place like this?"

Delan grunted but offered no other comment.

A brisk walk brought them to the baggage claim area. Hoger noticed people staring; under other circumstances he might have thought it was the costumes but, like many other interstellar hubs, Chiwa High Port attracted a mix of peoples that could only be described as eclectic. More likely Delan and the girls drew the looks; since docking Hoger couldn't recall seeing a single non-human except for 'droids.

"How long is this gonna take?" Georgia groused as bags slid by on the conveyor belt.

"Your bag's always the last one, you know that," Kitzie replied.

"If you two slugs didn't pack so much crap we wouldn't have to do this," Gwine interjected.

"I suppose you'd rather be stuffing you fat face," Georgia snapped.

"I'm surprised we didn't have to charter a freighter to carry all the garbage you wanted to take," Kitzie said.

"You gonna do something about that?" Mackey inquired as the girls continued swapping acerbic comments.

"They're just nervous," Hoger replied. He, on the other hand, felt strangely calm. Almost serene. Not that there was any less to worry about... but the waiting was over. From now until show time there would be things to do.

Despite Gwine's comments each band member recovered only one medium sized suitcase, except for Mackey and Delan, who also picked up guitar cases. "Now all we have to do is find the hotel," Hoger announced, setting out briskly.

Despite a lack of crowding- Chiwa High Port seemed to be operating at about half capacity in its passenger terminals- getting from place to place turned out not to be a trivial matter. Measuring nearly ten kilometers across the port was, literally, a city in space.

"How much farther is it?" Gwine demanded petulantly.

"Aw, quit complaining," Kitzie replied, though she didn't look any happier. "You could stand to walk off some of that flab."

"Keep it up and I'll show you how much flab I've got on my knuckles," Gwine grumbled.

Hoger paused to consult a public directory. "I think we're almost there," he said.

"Why couldn't we get a hotel closer to the terminal?" Georgia wanted to know.

"Money," Delan replied. "When we get famous and start doing sold-out tours across the galaxy, why then we'll stay at the best, most expensive hotels."

"Why stop there?" Mackey commented. "We should get our own private star ship."

"This way, Hoger announced.

A mere five-minute walk- through a veritable maze of corridors- brought them to their destination. Hoger ran his ID card through the slot and the front door opened, admitting him and his party to the lobby. "Good afternoon," the 'droid behind the counter said. "How may I assist you?"

"Bennie and the Jets," Hoger replied, laying his ID on the counter.

"Let me check, that, sir." The 'droid took the card and turned to a computer terminal. "Ah, yes. Here it is." It returned the card and three electronic passkeys. "Your units are 200, 201, and 202. If you require anything please don't hesitate to ask and on behalf of the staff I hope you enjoy your stay."

"Thanks." Hoger scooped up his ID and the passkeys. He gave one to Delan and another to Gwine, keeping one for himself.

"Think there's actually anyone alive in this place?" Mackey wondered.

"Probably not," Hoger replied. "'Droids are cheaper to keep than employees."

"They charge enough to have employees," Georgia said.

"That's what you get for living on a habitat," Hoger replied.

Hoger took room 200. He opened his suitcase and swapped the glasses he wore for an apparently identical pair. From a pocket in the suitcase's liner he pulled out three disposable hypo-injectors. He pressed one against the underside of his wrist; it hissed softly as it delivered its dose into his bloodstream. He proceeded to room 201, where Mackey and Delan had set up. They'd put their suitcases aside and opened their instrument cases. Delan's looked like a regular guitar; he sat on the bed with it across his lap, strumming riffs and adjusting the tuning. He left the synthesizer unit deactivated so Hoger heard only the quiet sound of the strings themselves. Mackey's looked more like a a short keyboard with a guitar neck sticking out of it. He stood with the instrument slung over his shoulder, apparently playing it, but no sound at all emerged. A flex cable connected the instrument to a cyber jack implanted just behind his right ear. "Ready?" Hoger asked. "I'd like to find the club before the girls start eating the upholstery."

"Just a sec." Mackey rocked back, his face distorted in a strange grimace, his fingers flying over the frets and keys of his instrument. He finished by dropping to his knees and thrusting his right arm upward. Hoger applauded.

Delan took a small screwdriver from his guitar case and carefully removed one of the decorative plates from the face of his instrument. Out of the cavity thus revealed he shook a thick rod of amber colored plastic slightly longer than his clenched fist. When he squeezed it in his hand the plastic softened and reformed into a handle precisely conforming to his fingers and a fifteen centimeter double-edged blade grew from one end. He relaxed his grip and it became a cylinder once more. He slipped it into his pocket along with a roll of cargo tape, replaced the decorative plate, and put his instrument away.

"Right-ho." Mackey got to his feet, slinging his instrument across his shoulder. He left the flex connected. Hoger handed him and Delan a hypo and they injected themselves. Hoger put the empties in his pocket.

When Hoger knocked on the door to 202 it opened at once. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes; the room looked like a bomb had gone off. Empty suitcases lay on the floor and articles of female clothing lay strewn over everything, including the bedside lamp. "Heyo," Georgia said brightly. Behind her Kitzie and Gwine argued vociferously over the contents of a makeup case.

"It's show time," Hoger said.

Instant silence fell. Kitzie and Gwine dropped the makeup case and hurried over. "Who's first?" Gwine asked.

"Georgia," Hoger replied.

"Okay." Georgia hiked her skirt and slipped off her panties.

"Right." Hoger adjusted his glasses. A map of the High Port appeared, apparently hanging in the air before him, projected into his eyes by circuitry in the glasses. "Let's roll." This time he led the way unerringly; the glasses showed him the best route.

"'Bout time you got here," Barco growled. He loomed even over Hoger; in youth he'd probably been solid muscle but advancing years left him softening and slumping like melting wax. Acne scarring, wiry stubble, and an impressive assortment of moles added their respective touches to an already craggy face.

"Customs hassled us about our gear," Mackey replied. "They've got this place sewn up like an extra-support girdle."

Barco growled and spat. "Damn Imperials, that's what it is." But he glanced around to make sure no one was near and did not speak too loudly. "C'mon in."

The Belter's Bolt-Hole lay in the High Port's industrial area. Its patrons were, by in large, port workers or asteroid miners. Soft lighting and dark paneling hid the fact that there really was no decor, other than illuminated signs and animated holograms advertising a broad range of recreational substances.

"You use all 'droid staff?" Hoger inquired. Two bartenders, humanoid but with four arms, mixed drinks. The half dozen or so serving units looked at least approximately female.

"Sure," Barco replied. "Out here people cost too much. 'Sides, it's what most of the people out here expect." He grinned, which made his visage even more frightening. "But some kinda work, 'droids just can't do, know what I mean?" He gestured toward the stage. A scantily clad Twi'lek female gyrated to music that came across as little more than a beat. To Hoger she looked desperately tired, more than a little overweight, and too old for this type of work. The patrons didn't seem to notice, or more likely, care.

When Barco closed the door to his office the outside noise cut off as if it had never existed. He sat behind a small, battered desk, gesturing to a rickety couch. Hoger sat; Delan stood beside him. Mackey fiddled with his instrument and the girls looked around the room. There wasn't much to see except a computer console opposite the desk.

"Here's the contract," Barco declared, pulling a data pad out of the desk drawer. "Five nights with a minimum of three shows a night, with option to extend. You can use the club's power couplings and 'droids to set up and break down your gear but only so long as it doesn't interfere with normal operation. Hey!"

Barco rose to his feet because Gwine had bent over the console, finger out as if about to touch something. With his attention focused he didn't respond at once when Georgia bent over and lifted her tail. His jaw dropped when he noticed that she wasn't wearing any panties. Before he could comment a jet of liquid squirted from her anus and struck him in the chest. He emitted a strangled sound; his limbs flailed without coordination and he dropped to the floor, smacking his chin on the edge of the desk as he went down. Kitzie and Gwine set him in his chair with surprising ease considering his size and their build. Delan strapped him down with cargo tape, using his memory plastic knife to cut it. Mackey fished a second coil of flex from his pocket, using it to connect his instrument to the computer console.

"Very good," Hoger pronounced, nodding. Security scanners could detect a broad range of weapons, even something as simple as a knife. Assuming, of course, that at the time of scanning it looked like a knife. They'd pick up a canister of knockout gas no matter how well concealed. But only a medical scanner- with a sophisticated expert system to operate it- could guess that the stew of organic chemicals secreted by the girls' musk glands might combine to form a powerful nerve agent. In five minutes whatever remained loose in the air would break down harmlessly; whatever entered an organic body would keep the victim paralyzed for three or four hours. When Hoger tried to look at his watch his head flopped and his eyes wouldn't focus. The antidote he'd given himself in the hotel wasn't perfect. He didn't pass out or fall over, though.

"Tapeworm launched," Mackey reported. "Working... got it. We have full control of the club and access to the station net."

"Very good," Hoger repeated. The AI in Mackey's instrument was entirely legitimate; it replaced a team of sound engineers as well as controlling the stage lights and special effects. Of course Mackey had improved it considerably with software he had, often as not, written himself. Only a very skilled organic operator- or an intelligence 'droid more sophisticated than one was likely to find outside the Imperial Security Bureau- was likely to detect and properly identify the special functions. "Are we go for the mission?"

"That's an affirm," Mackey replied. "There's a utility corridor running right under this club. It'll get us into the cargo transfer system and from there it's a hop, skip, and a jump to the power core."

Someone knocked on the door. Delan drew his knife; the girls moved up beside him. "It's the dancer," Mackey reported.

"She's all right," Hoger replied. "Let her in."

Kitzie opened the door. The Twi'lek dancer- wearing a robe- stepped in. She gasped when she saw Barco, then smiled. "So I guess everything worked out," she said.

"So far," Hoger replied. "You have your ticket?"

"Yes." she nodded. "Bought it this morning."

"Good." Hoger drew a credit stick from his pocket and pressed it into her palm. "Then use it. Find the first ship going out system and take it."

"But-" she protested.

"No." Hoger closed her fingers over the cred stick. "You've done your part. We wouldn't even be here if not for the information you've provided. But you know things, Kennely. About me and the band. If the Imperials pick you up they'll get it out of you, one way or another. The best thing that you could do to help me now would be to get away from here as quickly as possible."

Kennely swallowed. She hugged Hoger and kissed him on the cheek. "See you," she said and hurried out.

"She's the mole?" Delan asked.

"Yep," Hoger replied. "It's amazing what people will say when they're trying to impress a girl. I know it's been done to death but it still works. Mackey, is everything in hand?"

"That's an affirm, boss-man."

"Has our gear arrived?"

"Ready and waiting."



"Time to set up the stage, then?" Delan asked.

"That's right." Hoger rubbed his palms together. "Let's make this our best show ever, shall we?"

Kathryn uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again the other way. She wore slightly faded blue jeans, white sneakers, and a peach colored top trimmed with ruffles. Her appearance of boredom and frustration were not an act. People eyed her curiously as they hurried past; when her gaze fell on them they generally looked away quickly. One child let out a yelp and hid behind her mother. Maybe it was her cyberware or maybe her attitude or maybe some of both. At one time Kathryn might have been bothered by it. Now... maybe it wasn't so much that it didn't bother her as that it had no bearing on the mission and was, therefore, irrelevant. "How long did he say we should wait?" she couldn't help asking.

Natsumi shrugged one shoulder, slurping noisily at a drink she'd purchased at a fast food stand. She also wore blue jeans, cut off so short the pockets stuck out, a cherry red halter, and black, velvet boots with loose, floppy cuffs. "You know it doesn't work like that," she replied. "It's not like he said, 'go to Concourse Ten, Gate C4, and wait for a man with a purple fedora.' What he said amounted to 'walk the concourse until you find the right place, then wait there for the right person.' It's all kinda, y'know, existential."

Kathryn grunted. The power Natsumi wielded didn't work in straight lines. The Force moves us in mysterious ways, people said. To Kathryn it looked like a mishmash of emotion, intuition, fortuitous coincidence, and pure, dumb luck. She hated it because it struck her as the very antithesis of rational problem solving. She hated it even more because- at least the way Natsumi did it- it worked. Her hunches and intuitions always turned up something useful. She had a knack for being in the right place at the right time even when it didn't look that way until afterward. After working with her all this time Kathryn almost believed that, simply by wandering randomly through the High Port's corridors, they would, purely by chance, run into the person they wanted to meet. She hated that most of all. It seemed dreadfully unfair to the people who had to do things the hard way.

Though not directed at her Natsumi felt Kathryn's glowering stares. For once she was grateful for her instructor's dour mein; it kept people away who might otherwise become a distraction. She didn't feel confident, though. The advantage of reasoned analysis was that a person could review and test it; doubts could be dispelled by the solidity of an argument. For her, on the other hand, every conclusion was a leap in the darkness. She picked the path that felt right but only when she reached the end did she find out if it brought her closer to her goal. She knew Kathryn didn't think she took things seriously but ever since getting the briefing data she'd appreciated the importance of this particular mission. The Karnawan Cluster wasn't exactly the most important part of the galaxy, nor was the task force attempting to pacify it the biggest and best in the Imperial star fleet. The success or failure of its mission might not seem important in the grand scale of things but it could be. People tended to think that history flowed like a river, bypassing or drowning obstacles. To an individual it might seem that way but on a large scale Natsumi saw history as more like falling snow. Things built up slowly, gradually obscuring the outline of the past but never quite erasing it. And just as snow piled too deep became unstable, history that built up too long without some sort of adjustment developed tension. When the tension got bad enough even a small, apparently random event could spark off a chain reaction. It wasn't possible for any person to predict the exact shape of an avalanche but it didn't take much to see that dropping a stone here would set something off there.

Natsumi felt the lines of probability sliding into alignment. She couldn't even begin to guess at the implications but she couldn't shake the conviction that the very fate of the galaxy hung on what happened in the next few minutes. That sense of overwhelming responsibility terrified her like nothing else ever had. In fact, while dwelling on that she almost missed it. For no reason she could identify her eye fell upon a middle-aged Twi'lek female dressed in overalls, a plaid shirt, and carrying a bulky carpet bag. She stared at Natsumi as she walked by just like everyone else did. As their eyes met suddenly Natsumi knew. "Her," she whispered.

Kathryn brushed her hair back from the side of her head. Her ocular antennae tracked the woman. Only after she looked away from Natsumi did Kathryn rise to her feet and follow. A brisk but unhurried stride closed the range. Up ahead a liner discharged passengers. No less than six checkpoints had been set up to process them but only two stormtroopers accompanied the local security officers. Kathryn didn't see the point; the troopers couldn't do anything other than stand around and look pretty but for her purposes she was glad of their presence. She transmitted a signal; they turned away from the checkpoints and looked her direction.

The Twi'lek woman stopped dead. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Kathryn. She screamed.

"Hey! Hey, I know you! You're Benny! Of Benny and the Jets!"

Hoger turned in his chair and looked the speaker up and down. He was a youngish fellow dressed in an orange body suit that strongly resembled a pair of pajamas but with lots of pockets and odd little fittings attached here and there. Obviously he was an asteroid miner, come to spend his hard-earned wages in the flesh pots of Chiwa High Port.

"Why yes, surely I am," Hoger agreed, grinning broadly and enthusiastically pumping the offered hand. The heads-up display in his glasses indicated that the man carried no weapons or electronic gear other than a battered pocket secretary. "Say, aren't you the feller I saw on Dondregar with the gundark-skin hat?" Hoger wondered.

The man shook his head. "No. I was two seats back and to the left."

"Ah." Hoger nodded. "So what's your name, sonny?"


"You like an autograph, Malicus?"

Malicus' face lit up. "I'd love one!"

"Have a seat, m'boy." Hoger hauled out a chair. "Hey Del, gotta pen?"

"Right here, boss." Delan produced one from inside his blouse.

Malicus opened his pocket secretary. "Would you sign it to my little cousin Nithras?"

"Shore thing." Hoger scrawled on the secretary's touch pad. "Lemmie buy you a drink. What's your pleasure?"

"Corellian Sunburst with a twist of Muga root," Malicus replied promptly.

Hoger snapped his fingers. "Hey, little lady, fetch my friend here a Corellian Sunburst with a twist of Muga root."

"Right away, sir." The barmaid 'droid gave a bow and hurried away.

Hoger turned back to his guest, adjusting his glasses. Malicus' skin contained traces of fungicidal cream. Most people used it to treat athlete's foot; people who wore space suits for a living often ended up using it all over their bodies. Malicus' blood contained evidence of drugs used to combat the effects of radiation. So in all probability he really was an asteroid miner. For a fan who'd just happened to meet a favorite star he seemed terribly apprehensive, as if he were afraid something awful might happen at any moment. That didn't surprise Hoger in the least; the fellow's name probably wasn't Malicus, he'd never been to Dondregar, he did not have a cousin Nithras, and he did not even like Corellian Sunrises, with or without the Muga root. Still, he had correctly given the signs and counter-signs and his emotional state was only to be expected of someone who had agreed to commit an act of war against the Empire.

"Are there lots of fans here tonight?" Delan inquired, picking up his instrument and silently fingering chords.

"Oh yeah," Malicus agreed. "About... oh, thirty or so. More'll be here by show time, though. Maybe fifty."

"Are your pals ready to party?" Hoger asked.

"Absolutely," Malicus declared, his tone resolute and his eyes hard.

"Well then." Hoger got to his feet. "Come on back to my office and I'll tell you all about this evening's scheduled entertainment."

Georgia strolled into Security Station Green Twenty with a sultry walk that should have set the floor tiles on fire. A sloppiness to her motions- such as might result from a significant degradation in motor coordination- dulled the effect. The euphoric expression on her face and an empty bottle clutched loosely in one hand suggested a likely cause. The desk sergeant and four guards in full body armor tensed slightly. Asteroid miners hung out in this part of the High Port and they were wont to get rowdy at times. Even an apparently innocent encounter could turn deadly in a heartbeat.

"Hey, off'ser!" Georgia called, waving her free hand and letting the bottle drop to the floor. "I los' som'n'. Kin ya 'elp me fin' it?"

The sergeant glanced at the displays on his desk. Georgia carried no weapons, explosives, or toxic substances. Her blood showed a relatively high concentration of intoxicants. "You're drunk, young lady," he admonished, relaxing. The guards relaxed as well.

"I los' sum'n," Georgia repeated petulantly, leaning forward and planting her elbows on the counter. They didn't support her; she continued sinking until the edge of the counter caught her under the arms and breasts.

"I'll help you find it after we've taken you down to the infirmary for a de-tox," the sergeant said in the tone of one addressing a small, unruly child. Georgia muttered something and slid off the counter, landing on the floor with a thud. She began to cry.

The sergeant rolled his eyes, stood up, opened the security barrier, and stepped in front of the counter. "Come on, get up," he said tiredly, taking Georgia's arm and trying to lift her. One of the guards snickered. The display on the sergeant's desk showed Hoger, Mackey, Delan, Kitzie and Gwine walk up to the front of the station and take positions around the door but no one was looking at it.

"I bruis' my bot'm," Georgia muttered. The sergeant grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her erect. After a couple tries she stood on her own.

Kitzie ran in. "There you are!" she shouted. "Don't you know we've been worried about you?"

"Get her de-toxed and keep her out of trouble and nothing more need be said," the sergeant said to Kitzie. Technically he should have cited Georgia for public drunkenness and let her spend a night in the iso-cubes but she hadn't really done anything other than be annoying. Besides, for a non-human she was pretty cute.

"Oh, thank you!" Georgia exclaimed. She wrapped her arms around his torso and licked his face. The sergeant let out a strangled cry. Two of the guards moved up to help him; the other two watched, trying- unsuccessfully- not to laugh. Kitzie stood back, hopping nervously from foot to foot and offering useless advice. Just when the guards about had Georgia worked loose, gripping her gently but firmly by the arms, Kitzie dropped a cred-stick. Instead of crouching she turned around and bent over. As her tail lifted the sergeant noticed that she wasn't wearing underwear. He opened his mouth to say something but never got the chance. Kitzie rolled her hips, panning the spray across him, Georgia, and the two guards. One of the two remaining guards clawed for his weapon, the other for his respirator. Neither suceeded; the musk evaporated very quickly. A single sharp intake of breath was all it took to leave them both sprawled on the floor, twitching and drooling with their tongues lolling out. An alarm shrilled, warning that the station's atmosphere had been contaminated. Atmosphere shields supposedly would have contained the toxin but people in the back room scrambled for their respirators anyway, not caring to take the chance that it didn't. The shield didn't stop Gwine from ducking through the open security barrier and spraying the room at large. Mackey jacked into the security console; a few seconds later more alarms added to the cacaphony.

"Decompression alert in Sector Green Twenty," a voice declared over the public address system. "All personnel must evacuate immediately. Decompression alert in Sector Green Nineteen. Decompression alert in Sector Green twenty-one-"

Georgia- suddenly recovered from her intoxication, apparently- and Kitzie had wrested weapons from incapacitated guards. Hoger grabbed one and followed the girls into the back room. From the look of things five people had managed to don respirators in time; Georgia and Kitzie shot them down. Hoger fired once and hit the ceiling; he felt desperately ill and the room shimmered in and out of focus while seeming to tip crazily. The antidote was wearing off.

"We're clear," Mackey called. "Security scanners and tangle fields are down."

"Good," Hoger rasped. "Open the impound locker. Quickly!" Gwine, who had dove under a desk after spraying, popped up. Hoger thrust the blaster into her hands; he wouldn't be any good with it until the nerve agent wore off.

Mackey shambled up to the impound room door. Obviously he felt the toxin as well though it didn't seem to impede his performance. He opened a panel on the face of his instrument and pulled out a card attached to a cable. He slipped it into the reader by the door and slumped to the floor. A moment later he grinned weakly; the door unlocked and swung open. Kitzie, Gwine, Georgia, Delan, and Hoger rushed past him into the impound room.

A lot of asteroid miners came to the High Port, to sell their findings and have fun. They tended to be a rough lot; many of them carried weapons as a matter of course. Wearing them on the High Port was of course illegal but the station administrators had quickly discovered that pursuing criminal charges against every infraction left their security section swamped with cases and created bad feelings with the miners. Thus they turned a blind eye while station security implemented a more informal solution: illegal weapons were impounded and returned when the offender departed. The only time things became official was in the case of repeat offenders and those who proved especially intractable. Since the arrangement was unofficial the confiscated weapons didn't go into the regular weapons locker as that would require a lot of potentially embarrassing datawork. Instead they went into the impound locker, which really wasn't meant to be a high-security vault. It was just a place where things confiscated by customs could be stored until they ended up wherever they needed to go. Hoger guessed that if one counted all the unofficially confiscated weapons kept in impound lockers all over the High Port one would end up with a number in the thousands. Another sloppy security practice, begging to be exploited, Hoger thought, shaking his head sadly. For an instant he felt a pang of sympathy for the Imperials trying to keep the place secure.

This particular locker yielded up about forty weapons, pistols and carbines mostly but a couple rifles as well. Hoger and his team hurried out of the station, each carrying a double armload. Malicus and about thirty others like him waited outside. The decompression alarms still shrilled and some of the miners looked so tense they seemed about to explode. Hoger empathized; decompression was the bogeyman lurking in the darkest nightmares of any habitat dweller. For these people, standing around while a decompression alarm went off would be like holding a stick of Blastite while the fuse burned down.

"You understand what you're to do?" Hoger asked as he passed out the weapons.

"Yeah," Malicus replied breathlessly. "We storm the control tower and disable the port's anticollision system."

"Right," Hoger agreed. "My team will plant charges and guide the commandos but the port's shields need to be down so they can dock."

"Got it." Malicus nodded. "You can count on us." He and the other miners dashed away, howling bloodthirstily.

Very deliberately Hoger turned away and hurried back toward the Belter's Bolt-Hole, resisting the urge to look back. He couldn't' tell Malicus and his people that they were only a diversion while Hoger's team penetrated the station's core and sabotaged the main reactor. The miners were tough but they'd be facing stormtroopers, not local security guards. He doubted very much if any of them would survive. If they did, the ISB would have cells and interrogation 'droids waiting for them. It went against everything Hoger believed in to deliberately sacrifice troops but there simply wasn't any alternative. He and a cadre of planners at a hidden Rebel base in the Menoloc system had gone over the intelligence again and again. The High Port housed an entire battalion of stormtroopers and a company patrolled the core at all times. With the number of Imperial military vessels in the area it would take nearly the entire Rebel fleet to punch through them. Such a massing of force couldn't possibly go undetected and the Imperials could summon help from a number of nearby patrol bases. Not to mention that local forces would help them if it meant saving the port. Since an alpha strike was out of the question that left a covert penetration... but there wasn't any practical way to sneak in enough troops to fight that many Imperials. Therefore something was needed to draw Imperial attention away from the real thrust.

At the very least Malicus and his friends wouldn't be alone. Two frigates were even now approaching Valda; they would try to run the Imperial blockade when- if- the port's shields went down. They were crewed entirely by volunteers... and they knew that their chances of surviving were slim at best.

"Madness," Hoger muttered under his breath. That good people rushed toward certain death for nothing more than an ideal. That Hoger Cestus, accompanied by the people he cared about more than anyone else in the Galaxy, was doing the very same thing.

If anyone thought it strange that a woman in jeans and a frilly blouse led a squad of stormtroopers no one bothered to mention it. In fact, there wasn't hardly anyone to comment even if they chose to. Nothing cleared a space habitat like a decompression alarm. Kathryn wasn't concerned; her own sensors told her the air was just fine. If anyone had bothered to check they would have seen the same thing. Still, she didn't blame them for running first and asking questions later. Asphyxiation in vacuum wasn't a pleasant way to die.

A massive pressure door sealed the passage between sectors Green Nineteen and Green Twenty. Kathryn laid her hand over the lock mechanism; a moment later the door opened. She didn't technically have the authority to override a safety door but she had a way with electronics.

Under interrogation the Twi'lek woman had divulged a number of very interesting things. About how she collected technical information about the High Port at the behest of certain shadowy figures and delivered it to other shadowy figures. Naturally she didn't know any of them. Suddenly an old friend of hers shows up, the leader of a band calling itself Bennie and the Jets. They'd met first on some fringe world, where Bennie rescued the Twi'lek from indentured servitude in the harem of an Imperial official. As a result of the rescue the official perished. Now the Twi'lek had decided to leave the Valda system because her friend said it might be a good idea. That in itself was enough that Kathryn wanted very much to have a long, intimate discussion with this Bennie character. Then, suddenly, all Hell broke loose. Alarms going off and people running around like Phorka lizards with their heads cut off. The locals blamed the Imperials, the Imperials blamed the locals. Everyone pointing fingers at everyone else. Swift, coordinated action could have cleaned everything up quickly but jurisdictional conflicts and factional infighting made that impossible. Which, she suspected, was exactly what Bennie wanted.

Kathryn's eyes narrowed, her lips drawing back in a snarl. She couldn't imagine how things got so badly out of hand here. It came from dealing with the Valdans instead of dictating to them. Yes, she appreciated the situation, but good grief! Fortunately the confusion worked in her favor as well. Stormtroopers were trained to be disciplined and obedient; with the proper command codes they'd follow her no matter what she looked like. If there hadn't been time to obtain those codes through proper channels, well, that was something that could be straightened out later.

The Belter's Bolt-Hole featured its name over a single door and a sign showing a bolt threaded into a nut. "Take the door," Kathryn ordered. She wished she had her pistols but there hadn't been any graceful way of getting them past customs. Instead she made do with a trooper's rife.

The lieutenant snapped an order. His men fanned out; one slapped a wad of blast-putty against the door and triggered the cap. Three seconds later the putty exploded, blowing the door out of its frame. The squad fired through the opening then ducked inside, each one leaping to one side or another. "All clear, sir," the lieutenant reported. "There's no one here but the band."

Kathryn walked in, the rifle ready in her hands. She saw tables and two serving 'droids that had been shot up by blaster fire but no patrons or any other people. Up on stage a heavyset man in black leather sang while a lanky man in jeans and a dark-skinned Drafi played instruments. Three black-furred creatures Kathryn didn't recognize danced and sang backup. They seemed utterly unaware that their only audience consisted of 'droids and a squad of stormtroopers. Without bothering to sight Kathryn fired; the singer's head exploded in a shower of sparks. He staggered and collapsed; bits of metal and torn wires protruded from the stump of his neck.

"Son of a gundark," Kathryn said without any particular heat.

"They're 'droids," the lieutenant observed.

"Which means they've started the party without us," Kathryn replied. "Search the place."

"Sir." The lieutenant directed his men. They discovered the club owner, bound to his own chair with cargo tape. He claimed not to know anything and Kathryn guessed she hadn't time to interrogate him in detail. In the basement Kathryn made another startling discovery: the Belter's Bolt-Hole had been built over an access panel. Years ago, during the High Port's construction, a great many holes had been left in its structural components to facilitate easy installation of utility hardware. Once that work was done the holes were plugged. In this particular case the plug, a sheet of decking material, had been bolted in instead of welded. Someone- a maintenance 'droid from the look of things- had cut the bolts and pried out the panel.

"Son of a gundark," Kathryn repeated, crouching next to the hole and setting the rifle butt down beside her. A train of cargo palettes rumbled by beneath her. If the plug had been welded then cutting it out would have taken too long and probably set off a dozen alarms. Shearing the bolts could be done relatively quickly and only set off a few alarms... which could easily have been suppressed or overlooked in the confusion.

Several commlink channels went live. "Kathryn, a group of armed people, somewhere between twenty and fifty, opened fire on port security personnel in sector Blue Fourteen," Natsumi's voice reported. Variations of that same report came through on the other channels.

"Roger," Kathryn replied but she didn't move or acknowledge in any other way. In her mind schematics of the High Port turned this way and that as she studied them and other pieces of this most curious puzzle. Under the circumstances she couldn't doubt that Bennie and the Jets were really a Rebel insertion team. At the present time knowing that mattered very little since it gave no clue as to what they planned. To disable the High Port, naturally, but how? The Twi'lek hadn't known anything about dozens of armed insurgents. Obviously Bennie hadn't told her, a sensible precaution. Kathryn wondered briefly how they'd managed to cache so many weapons in a readily accessible place but where the local security forces wouldn't find them. It really didn't matter, she decided; that was one more of those things that could be sorted out afterward. The question at hand was what did armed insurgents in Blue Fourteen have to do with a hole cut in the floor here? Bennie had access to a very competent slicer who'd managed somehow to crack the port's security net and inject a whole bunch of false decompression alarms. This hole gave Bennie and his people access to the cargo transfer system without having to pass through a security checkpoint; by hopping a cargo container they could go anywhere in the port they cared to with no one the wiser. On the other hand-

"They're moving into Brown Five," Natsumi reported.

On that line of advance Kathryn saw that the insurgents could be headed for any of several likely targets. The traffic control center, the defense operations center, the administration complex, the computer core, or the hydroponics farm. Capturing any one of those would give the attackers opportunity to do all sorts of mischief. But it needed to be something drastic, something that couldn't be repaired or patched. For example, if they captured the defense operations center and ordered the port's defense batteries to open fire on the Imperial fleet. Yes, that would do nicely. Simply in the act of protecting themselves the fleet would inflict serious damage on the port. If things got bad enough the Valdans might even open fire with their planet-based systems.

On one of the comm channels Kathryn heard an Imperial officer calling for the squad she'd commandeered. The lieutenant kept his place behind and beside her, saying not a word. Obedience to the command codes overrode loyalty to known commanders. Kathryn frowned; in the past she would have said that was a good thing. But the current situation exposed a weakness: someone- like her- could completely disrupt the command and control system by injecting false orders. A less heavily indoctrinated force could deal with that, to some extent; middle and lower level commanders could, up to a point, recognize and reject clearly inappropriate orders. But only if they knew the overall plan... and if the possibility of making their own declensions regarding orders were permitted in the first place.

The officer stopped calling for his missing platoon and passed on an order telling them to hurry to Brown Five and set up to meet the insurgents. Kathryn expanded her monitoring; she intercepted orders to a number of platoons, shifting them to positions where they could block and surround the terrorists. She nodded; the overall commander moved his troops in accordance with sound military doctrine-

An icy sensation formed in the pit of Kathryn's stomach and spread slowly through her abdomen. If she'd been in command she would have done the same thing. Any commander worth spit would have. According to doctrines laid down and enshrined by the Imperial Academy. Doctrines that encouraged conformity and obedience. Doctrines that a halfway competent opponent could learn, either by watching the Imperial military in action or some skilful intelligence work. A careful commander would use that, predicting how the Imperial forces would react to particular stimuli.

"Kathryn, I just heard that fleet pickets detected a couple of Rebel frigates inbound," Natsumi reported. From the sound of her voice she was running.

Kathryn rose swiftly to her feet, laying the rifle in the crook of her arm. On another channel she heard the garrison commander calling up more troops. He concentrated them around the defense operations center; obviously he thought the terrorists would try to knock down the port's defense grid, allowing the frigates to land troops. Each frigate could bring a company of soldiers and the High Port's broad galleries would even pass light armored vehicles. With the defense grid under their control the Rebels could prevent the Imperial fleet from landing reinforcements. Merely battling for control would inflict grievous damage; the Rebels could plant charges and withdraw on any of the hundreds of civilian hulls docked at any given time. Kathryn gripped the rifle until her knuckles whitened. Sound military doctrine. On the other hand, all she had was a missing rock band and a hole that could lead anywhere- or nowhere. The logical, the correct course of action was to meet the known, substantiated threat. As the garrison commander was doing. As Bennie knew the garrison commander would do.

Given time Kathryn would puzzle out the mystery, of that she had no doubt. Nor did she doubt that Bennie wouldn't give her that time. By then he'd have done his thing and be long gone. Only luck- fate- the Force- had put her in the right place at the right time to intercept the one person in the Valda system who even knew Bennie and the Jets existed. Now-

Kathryn's lips drew back. As a child she remembered seeing a man who at least claimed to be a Jedi who would levitate trinkets donated by the crowd. "Behold the mighty power of the Force," he would intone while a fire-gem necklace twisted sinuously through the air. To eight year old Kathryn that was amazing and wondrous. To the adult Kathryn it was only one step- a very small one- up from Three Card Monte. Psychokinesis wasn't so unusual a power; Jedi developed it but even people who weren't could as well. But this... to say that the Force moved her and Natsumi to a particular place at a particular time, that it granted Natsumi a vision of the future- not just any future but one specifically relevant to her- implied that somehow the Force had a will. Kathryn didn't care for that idea at all. Even being around Natsumi- and Daddy- all this time wasn't compelling. Everything they did could be explained in terms of non-local extensions to regular human perceptions.

There wasn't time to solve this thing rationally. Which left... Natsumi's way. Instinct. Feeling. The Force.

In her mind Kathryn turned the problem around. Assuming the assault on the control center was merely a complex misdirection, what could five people do that would disable the High Port? Planting charges was out; they couldn't plant enough to make a difference unless-

In a flash the solution sprang, fully forming from nothing, into Kathryn's mind. "Natsumi, where are you?" she asked.

"Green six headed for Blue Eight," Natsumi replied. "If I hurry I can flank-"

"Abort," Kathryn cut in. "Head for Brown Zero."

For an instant Kathryn heard only the klack of Natsumi's hooves on the decking and the sound of her breathing. "The reactor complex?" she asked.

"Yes," Kathryn replied. "This is all just a diversion. They're going to launch a self destruct worm into the fusion core."

Natsumi giggled, returning her commlink to her utility belt without breaking stride. She stopped quickly; though exceedingly fit even she had limits. Returning to the ship for her lightsabers nearly tripled the length of her journey and she'd run most of it. Kathryn was lucky; she could pick up a blaster anywhere. Natsumi knew she wasn't any good with one and anyway she felt naked without her sabers.

At the next corridor intersection Natsumi coasted to a stop and looked around. From here to the station's core amounted to about three kilometers straight line distance and probably more like four through the corridors. Running all that way would take time and leave her winded. Transportation was in order. As luck would have it a small skimmer pulled up. Natsumi had seen port security personnel using them to ferry around people who had trouble walking the long concourses. Six security guards rode this particular one, presumably on their way to an incident.

Natsumi wasn't conscious of drawing her lightsabers as she stepped in front of the skimmer but they were in her hands, the blades snapping into existence. The driver slammed to a halt. "I'm terribly sorry," she said. "But I need your vehicle."

For what felt like an eternity the guards just sat there, staring. Apparently the sight of Natsumi holding her sabers was simply too much for them to assimilate. Natsumi wouldn't have cared except that they remained in the skimmer and she needed them out. She took a step-

Two of them unfroze and drew their blasters. Natsumi resisted the urge to roll her eyes; a protocol 'droid could have drawn faster and telegraphed its intentions less obviously. Her blades spun in lazy circles but still splashed the shots away. By then she'd reached the skimmer's nose; the driver fumbled out a weapon. With a casual swipe Natsumi took it off just in front of the receiver. He yelped and flung the grip away as if it had burned him though her blade hadn't passed anywhere near his hand. The others finally got the message through their pea brains and tumbled out of the skimmer. Two of them dropped weapons in their haste. Natsumi holstered her sabers and dropped into the driver's seat, leaning back to scoop up one of the blasters. Maybe she wasn't much of a marksman but it could still prove useful. She poured on as much speed as the skimmer had; as she roared through crowds of panicked civilians- and security troops, in some cases- she screamed like a banshee and fired the blaster into the ceiling. It cleared the way so much more effectively than a siren. She almost gave it up; the skimmer didn't go fast enough that maneuvering through open galleries was much fun. Dodging pedestrians would make it interesting, at least. Steering with one hand made up for it a little. Besides, Kathryn wouldn't have sent her to the station core if it weren't important. Given that, arriving quickly mattered more than having fun along the way.

Natsumi laughed. If she had Black Bitch, now that would be fun.

Georgia yelped and slid against Hoger as the container turned suddenly. Her blaster skittered across the container floor. Delan recovered it and passed it back.

"Just a little longer," Mackey reported. He shifted to the opposite side of the container. "We're almost there."

The container wasn't meant to carry passengers and lacked anything to brace oneself against. The grav-sleds that shunted containers about in the port's cargo transfer corridors weren't meant for passengers either; they started, stopped, and turned both suddenly and violently. Mackey, patched into the routing system, could anticipate the twists and turns. Hoger's own mass, plus that of the heavy pack slung on his chest and back, helped keep him in place. Delan and the girls suffered the most; about all they could do was follow Mackey.

Left. Decelerate. Accelerate. Cruise. Right. Long cruise. Decelerate and hard right-

The sled grounded with a bang. They'd arrived.

"Thank y'all for flying with us and we hope y'all come back soon," Mackey announced, rising to his feet and slinging his instrument across his shoulder.

"Not to sound ungrateful or anything but my ass hates you," Kitzie announced, rising and rubbing the offended portion of her anatomy.

"Careful where you point it," Delan said, picking up a metal rod slightly longer than he was tall. "We wouldn't want it to go off accidentally."

"Yeah," Mackey chimed in. "Does it have a safety?"

"Only if you put a cork in it," Georgia commented.

"But she might enjoy that," Gwine added. Kitzie stuck out her tongue at the lot of them.

Hoger struggled to his feet. The shield generator and power pack didn't literally weigh a ton but it felt like it. "Open," he commanded.

The girls lined up, blasters leveled. Delan used his staff to dislodge a pin holding the container's door shut. No armed assailants greeted them so the team hurried out onto an apparently empty loading dock.

"How are we doing?" Hoger asked, walking briskly toward a line of doors. Maybe he should have let one of the girls carry the pack. They were stronger, faster, and more flexible than any other member of the team. He chuckled; an Imperial Moff had spent a lot of money having then genetically engineered- only to have Hoger and his team steal the container they came in because they thought it contained weapons. Which, in a sense, it did. The girls were meant to be the Moff's bodyguards as well as his harem. They didn't look like any particular species Hoger knew of; maybe the Moff thought that would make them less likely to run away- or maybe he was just a kinky bastard. Hoger found it made less difference than one might think; given the number of planets and species in the galaxy one could always claim that they came from some out of the way place no one ever heard of.

"I can't access the Imperial net but the locals say they've moved more troops into Brown Five," Mackey replied. "Looks like our little bait and switch is working."

"People are dying so that our little bait and switch will work," Hoger growled. "Open this door."

Mackey worked on the lock. Hoger stood before the door, his hand on the shield control. As the door slid open he triggered it.

Shield generators weren't an unusual thing for a band to carry. Patrons could get rowdy and start throwing things or even shooting. Venues didn't always provide their own security. A generator and power pack small enough for a person to carry couldn't stop a blaster bolt so the Empire didn't consider it of tactical importance. Hoger knew a few tricks, though. He couldn't boost the power but he could make the generator do things its designers hadn't intended. In this case he'd jiggered the emitter elements deliberately out of synch. As the field built up, instead of forming a smooth bubble it created a seething mass of constantly shifting focus zones. It swelled directly away from Hoger, straight down the corridor in front of him, until the system tripped out and shut down.

A technician and a 'droid stood in the corridor. They looked up in surprise as the door opened. As the expanding shield passed through them the shifting force fields flayed them apart like a gigantic food processor. Reaction rocked Hoger back on his heels; the generator buzzed loudly and shut off with a snap. Bright red replaced neutral gray on the corridor walls. Bits of the technician and his 'droid slid down the walls and dripped from the ceiling. A pool of unidentified muck littered the floor.

Mackey doubled over and vomited noisily. Kitzie helped him up. Hoger felt sorry for him; of everyone present Mackey was the only one without a military background. He came because his slicing skills were essential to the completion of the mission. Though the mess in the corridor was pretty bad, even for someone who'd lived through years of war. Hoger led the way, ignoring the spatters of blood and gore that rained down on him. The girls tried to brush it out of their fur with limited success. Mackey flinched every time a drop fell on him. He would have collapsed if Kitzie and Gwine hadn't supported him.

Following the directions in his glasses Hoger led his team through a block of warehouses that stored spares and supplies needed in the port's engineering core. They left a trail of bodies in their wake; the girls shot everyone they met. They kept their blasters on stun, though Hoger wasn't sure it would matter. If the individual thusly disabled didn't wake up before the fusion core went super-critical it wouldn't matter if the girls had killed them outright. Hoger kept his hand on the shield controls; if they met stormtroopers or armored security guards the stun bolts wouldn't affect them.

Hoger took off his glasses and wiped a smear of blood from them. When the reactor went it would blow the High Port into several pieces. Everyone still on board would probably be killed. Some of those fragments- massing thousands or millions of tons even individually- would crash down onto Valda. Hoger wanted to think that the Valdans deserved it for consorting with the Empire but he couldn't quite convince himself. The Valdans were simply doing the best they could, trying to get by without their planet being smashed by war. But it was because so many systems did the same, taking the easy path, thinking only of their own interests, that the Emperor managed to get a strangle hold on them. Surely someone had to make a stand. Things became so much easier when the good guys were good and the bad guys bad. Unfortunately, whatever happened the Valdans would suffer most. Even if this mission succeeded and the Rebellion managed to wipe out the Imperial task force it was only one of many. If the mission failed the Rebellion would move its bases out of the Karnawan cluster and hide them elsewhere. Did the Valdans deserve what Hoger was about to unleash upon them?

"We're here," Mackey announced.

Hoger straightened up. The team stood facing a sealed pressure door; a notice beside it warned of vacuum on the other side. "Okay, folks, this is the tricky part," he said, extracting the shield generator's control chip and replacing it with another. "We have to reach the power core without any Imperials spotting us." The new chip made the generator act normally. It still wouldn't stop blaster bolts but it would trap a bubble of air around him and the team.

"Hold this." Delan tossed his staff to Mackey, who caught it awkwardly. Delan drew a blaster, checked the magazine, and flipped the setting to "kill." Mackey stepped up to the lock; Hoger switched on the shield and positioned himself so that everyone could gather around him and fit within the shield. He drew his own blaster.

It didn't matter whether the Valdans deserved it or not. Millions might die today, yes. If the Emperor succeeded in his mad scheme every being in the galaxy, not to mention their descendants for unknown generations, would be lost in eternal night from which there would be no dawn. That would not happen so long as Hoger Cestus drew breath. If the price were his life he would pay it gladly.

Kathryn sat braced between the lieutenant and a noncom as the cargo container they rode stopped, started, and turned abruptly. With all the confusion topside the quickest way to reach the station core was the same way Bennie had. "When we arrive there will be six, or no more than seven, individuals attempting to cross the well surrounding the fusion core," she said. She'd studied the band's cargo manifest; the shield generator they carried couldn't enclose any more than that. "We need to find them and stop them as quickly as possible." She hesitated briefly. "They'll be trying to plant a worm program in the core's control computer," she continued. "If they succeed the core will go super-critical. That will not happen because you men will stop it. Because you are soldiers of the Empire. Because you are the best and brightest, the last bastion of defense the galaxy has against the chaos of rebellion."

I can't believe I said that, Kathryn thought to herself. It went against all doctrine. Surely even these men would see how ridiculous it was. Training and discipline mattered, not pretty words. But she saw them sit even straighter, gripping their weapons more tightly. She could see them grinning under their helmets. "Yes sir!" the lieutenant snapped.

"Yes sir!" the squad chorused.

Kathryn kept her expression neutral. The whole point of Imperial doctrine was to eliminate this sort of thing. To compensate for the weakness of the human spirit.

But what about the strength of the human spirit?

The container jerked to a halt. Kathryn and the squad got to their feet. As one of the troopers reached out to push the doors they swung open. A port worker and several stevedore 'droids waited outside. The man let out a yelp and threw up his hands. "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" he shrilled, falling to his knees.

"Have you seen anyone else come out of a cargo pod?" Kathryn demanded.

"No!" the man shrieked.

"Do you have a passkey that will open the airlocks leading into the well around the fusion core?" Kathryn asked.

The man blinked. "But-"

A trooper prodded the fellow sharply with the barrel of his rifle. "Answer the captain's question with no back talk!"

The man swallowed. "Yes." Kathryn held out her hand. After a brief hesitation he lowered one hand and fumbled a card from a folder at his belt.

"Move out." Kathryn slipped the card into her pocket and turned away. The man watched them go without a word.

At a brisk jog Kathryn led her squad through the twisting corridors. No one tried to stop them; port workers yelped and scrambled out of the way. 'Droids- or people- that didn't move quickly enough got kicked or shoved. By the time they reached the nearest airlock some of the men were breathing hard. Kathryn seemed completely unaffected; her cybernetics enhanced her strength and endurance considerably. The card opened the airlock as promised; the squad followed her in. No one remarked on the fact that Kathryn didn't have a suit. She didn't need one; as air pressure dropped a force field sprang into being, projected by a generator in her chest. When the outer door opened she again led the way.

An enormous, cylindrical structure contained the High Port's main reactor. A network of girders connected it to the surrounding structure but it hadn't been filled in with decking and bulkheads, creating an open well around the reactor vessel. Gigantic conduits hung from many of the girders, sending power out to all parts of the station. Walkways ran along the tops of many of the girders. The Imperial commander had felt that decompressing the well would enhance security by limiting access to the fusion core. At the very least it kept everyone but 'droids out. And people who could smuggle in suits or atmosphere shields.

"Wait here," Kathryn commanded, jogging out onto the walkway. The control center resided at the very top of the core but Bennie could have come in anywhere. She raised the blaster to her shoulder, her sensors scanning carefully for the telltale emissions of an atmosphere shield. Maybe she'd get lucky-

Bingo. Kathryn's artificial right eye zoomed in. Eventually she picked out motion amid the forest of girders. Several levels up and quite a ways around the well, even at maximum magnification she couldn't make out much in the way of detail. There were six of them moving along in a tight group. In a few seconds they'd be out of sight behind the curve of the core. She stroked the rifle's trigger.

The shield blazed as a blaster bolt slapped through it. Gwine let out a strangled cry and dropped her blaster. Hoger staggered.

"Gwine!" Kitzie screamed, catching Gwine and trying to prop her up. Gwine groaned; blood frothed at her nose and mouth and soaked the fur on her back.

"Keep moving!" Hoger grunted. The shot had come from behind and below; if they ran for the core they might get out of sight. Delan helped Kitzie drag Gwine. No more shots came. At the end of the walkway Hoger hand to grab Mackey and shove him toward the airlock. He couldn't seem to stop staring at Gwine. He managed to get the door open and they hurried inside.

"Uhh... leave me..." Gwine gasped as the lock pressurized.

"No!" Kitzie exclaimed.

"Can't... feel my legs." Gwine coughed up a spray of blood.

Hoger's face tightened. The blast had struck Gwine right between the shoulder blades. Probably it had damaged her spine and slashed up her heart and lungs. She wouldn't last long without help.

Georgia produced a medkit but Gwine wouldn't let her apply it. "You can't... carry me... and succeed," she gasped, spraying flecks of blood across Georgia's bosom. "If you leave... and I live... the Empire... will catch me."

Kitzie swallowed. Her hands shook so hard she had to put down her blaster.

"Give me... your blaster."

Kitzie didn't move. Hoger stepped forward and offered his. Gwine took it. Her hands shook; Hoger assisted her as she guided the muzzle into her mouth. He let go and stepped back. Mackey turned away. No one else did. The report sounded flat, oddly muffled. Hoger retrieved the weapon and switched chips in the shield generator. Suddenly his skin crawled as he contemplated the blood and gore splashing his skin and clothes. It didn't all belong to some poor sap who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of it was Gwine's.

"There should be a lift around here leading up to the control room," Hoger said, stepping out into the lock antechamber. He didn't look back, nor at the barrel of his own weapon.

Natsumi swept around a corner and into a gallery packed with armed security guards. They opened fire at once; she dove out of the skimmer while they shot it to pieces, drawing her sabers as she fell. She hit, rolled, and came up with the weapons ready in her hands. A fusillade of gunfire chased toward her; she ran, sweeping her blades like never before. Stray bolts chewed up the floor and walls around her; deflected blasts filled the air with sharp, searing explosions. She couldn't see through the ravening spray of energy; only instinct kept her blades moving, following the lines of probability. She'd never tried to repel so many attacks at once. She couldn't keep it up- and there looked to be only one way to stop it. She charged straight into the mass. Up close the guards couldn't easily shoot Natsumi without hitting their fellows and they weren't equipped for hand-to-hand combat. Natsumi waded through them, her blades flashing and thrumming. Finally- after what felt like an eternity- she realized that the shooting had stopped. She looked around.

Bodies- and parts of bodies- littered the deck. Around Natsumi lay the remains of at least forty corpses. For the most part her energy blades cauterized the wounds they made, leaving them relatively bloodless. When one of them cut a man in half, though, there wasn't any way to close that. The air stank of charred meat, hot blood, and the contents of ruptured body cavities. Wounded but not dead guards dragged themselves away from her. More mobile ones ran. She'd killed or routed close to a hundred men. She licked her lips, tasting salt. Sweat lathered the fur all over her body and left her clothes feeling slimy. Stray bolts had shot away feathers on her wings, leaving then tattered and ragged. When she took a step her hooves slipped in pools of blood. With a muttered curse she switched off her sabers and holstered them. It was all such a waste. She hadn't needed to fight these men. In the grand scheme of things they were on the same side. What she wanted was what they wanted: to save the High Port. She picked her way out of the mess and started jogging. For a while she left bloody footprints on the decking. Not only had the encounter wasted lives it had wasted time. Losing the skimmer cost even more time. She prayed that enough remained for her to help Kathryn in whatever needed doing.

But Natsumi found her mind wouldn't stay focused. She saw the faces of the men she'd killed, momentary images frozen in time. They all looked the same, contorted in terror of the death they saw bearing down on them. What a waste. What a terrible, terrible waste. In her mind she heard their souls scream as they vanished into the Dark. Because her thoughts lingered there instead of on her mission- or the lines of probability- it caught Natsumi entirely be surprise when she jogged around a corner and ran smack into a squad of stormtroopers.

"Freeze!" one of them shouted. In a flash all of them had their weapons up.

Natsumi's hands quivered, longing to reach for her sabers, but she knew she'd never make it.

"Down!" the trooper shouted. "Hands up!"

Natsumi dropped to her knees. She was a non-human, carrying illegal weapons, and covered with blood that wasn't her own. Even if she could persuade the troopers to look at her ID why should they believe it under the circumstances? She raised her hands slowly, making a slight gesture with her right. "I have authorization to be here," she said.

The troopers stepping forward hesitated.

"I'm on a mission to save the port," Natsumi continued. "I need to reach the reactor control room right away to prevent some Rebel agents from sabotaging it."

For an eternal instant the troopers stood there, neither moving nor speaking. Natsumi stressed the lines of probability as hard as she dared; the troopers didn't want to believe her and had plenty of reasons not to. If she couldn't turn them-

"Right this way, Ma'am." A trooper caught Natsumi under the armpit and helped her rise. "We have a transport. We'll get you there right away."

"Thanks." Natsumi nearly fainted with relief.

Natsumi and the troopers boarded a skimmer and set off. They passed several checkpoints; not merely sensor frames but barricades manned by armed guards. Natsumi decided that encountering the troopers had been serendipitous; she wouldn't have casually blown past these barriers. In the distance she heard gunfire; they were passing close to where the terrorists were fighting toward the operations center. Suddenly they hit a checkpoint manned by Imperial forces.

"Halt!" an officer shouted, rushing forward. "Where do you men think you're going?"

Natsumi cursed under her breath. She raised her hand but hesitated. Too many people.

"Who the bloody cop is this?" the officer continued, looking Natsumi up and down distastefully.

Natsumi slid off the skimmer. "I'm here to stop the terrorist attacks against this station," she said, wiggling her fingers but keeping her hands close to her sides.

The officer blinked. "Then what the cop are you doing here? You should be over there where the fighting is!"

"Yes, of course," Natsumi agreed. "Can you show me on the map?"

"Yes, yes, here." He led Natsumi to a plotting console.

"I need to get to the power core main control room," She hissed as they walked, hiding the gesture under her wing. "You need to get me there right away."

The officer stopped, licking his lips. He looked around. "You!" He pointed out a trooper. "Take this woman to the power core main control room!"

"Sir!" The trooper saluted. "This way."

Natsumi's knees quivered as she followed. Tweaking the probabilities like that- instead of merely sensing them- drained her as much as combat. Thank goodness for Imperial discipline; the troops would obey so long as the order wasn't completely ridiculous. She couldn't have done much more. The trooper loaded her into a skimmer and once again she was on her way.

Hoger stopped the lift two levels below the control room; there would be guards on the top level. "Delan, scope it out," he ordered.

"Right." Delan leapt and caught a crosspiece. He pulled himself up, rolled, and vaulted to the next. In an amazing display of gymnastics he ascended through the support structure. Hoger activated his commlink and held it to his ear. A few minutes later it clicked twice. He restarted the lift, bringing it up the last two floors.

Delan peeked up over the edge of the deck. "There's a squad coming up that way," he reported, pointing.

Hoger nodded. He lifted the shield pack off and lowered it to the deck. "Kitzie, Georgia, it would be nice if that squad ran past here."

"Right." Kitzie nodded. She and Georgia jogged away down the walkway.

"Mackey, get under cover," Hoger ordered.

"Over here," Delan called. "Over the edge... put your foot there... now hang on. And keep your head down." He ducked out of sight. Hoger took cover- such as it was- behind a girder. His best hope lay in the fact that the troopers would be too busy chasing Kitzie and Georgia to notice. He switched channels on his commlink and gripped it tightly in his off hand.

Several shots rang out. Kitzie and Gwine came pounding back; Kitzie bled from a wound on her shoulder. They rushed right by Hoger and the shield pack. More shots chased them; Hoger winced as one struck dangerously close to him. Wouldn't it be a lark if the Imperials shot him by accident?

The stromtroopers appeared. They came in good order, firing occasionally. Smart of them to stick together and maximize their firepower, Hoger thought. Unless the enemy has anti-personnel devices. He keyed the commlink.

The shield pack activated. Some of the troopers at the back cried out but they couldn't quite stop in time. The generator buzzed loudly and shut off. Segments of body armor clattered to the deck. Blood ran in a wave across the walkway and poured over either edge.

"Another squad's coming the other way," Delan reported, looking up.

Hoger nodded. He switched channels again and keyed his commlink once. He grabbed the shield pack and dragged it along the walkway to about where he thought the squad coming would see the mess ahead of them. He slung it over a support beam and retreated quickly to the lift. He lay down in the shadow of a girder.

Kitzie and Georgia came running back. Georgia limped, clutching her thigh. Kitzie spun, snapping off a shot, then caught Georgia's arm and hurried her along. The pursuing stormtroopers came a lot closer behind this time. Hoger itched to fire but he didn't dare draw attention to himself. Delan fired once then had to duck as half a dozen bolts splashed the decking near him. Hoger clenched the commlink in a death grip. Just a little farther-

A bolt hit Georgia in the calf. She fell, spilling Kitzie was well. Hoger triggered the commlink.

The first half the squad died horribly as the force fields tore through it. The second half managed to stop in time but apparently Imperial training didn't extend to watching one's squad mates chopped apart like vegetables on a cutting board. They hesitated.

That was all Hoger heeded. He rose, firing; so did Delan. Kitzie twisted, firing while prone. Three of the remaining six troopers tumbled away. One returned fire- and missed, though Kitzie lay not more than five meters in front of him. She shot him. Another trooper fired and he didn't miss. He would have hit Kitzie in the face had not Georgia flung herself in the way. The bolt blasted off the side of her head. Delan shot the trooper who fired. The last trooper turned to flee; Hoger shot him in the back then scrambled to his feet. When he reached Kitzie she sat up with Georgia in her arms. Georgia's blood and brains splashed one side of Kitzie's face and her shoulder.

"Kitzie," Hoger said. "Come on. We're almost there."

Kitzie looked up. Her eyes didn't focus.

"Come on." Hoger spoke gently but firmly. He knelt, placing his hand under Kitzie's armpit and tugging. Kitzie looked down at Georgia's shattered face, swallowed convulsively, and let her slide to the deck as she rose unsteadily to her feet.

"Was it worth it?" Kitzie demanded suddenly. Delan, halfway up onto the walkway, froze.

"All the children not born in slavery to the Emperor will thank her," Hoger replied.

"Maybe I don't care about them!" Kitzie shrieked in a voice as jagged as broken glass.

"Kitzie!" Hoger grabbed her face, forcing her to look into his eyes. "You knew it might come to this. She knew it. We all knew it. We came anyway. We're so close. Make what they did mean something!"

Tears streamed down Kitzie's cheeks. A sound drew her attention; a trooper moaned feebly. He'd lost an arm and a leg but still lived, at least for the moment. Kitzie's expression turned completely blank. She kicked off his helmet, shoved the muzzle of her blaster into his mouth, and looked deep into his eyes as she pulled the trigger.

When Natsumi walked into the core control room the technicians reacted as if a rabid Vrang beast had burst in on them. Most of them fled, shrieking in terror. One dove under a console. Natsumi blinked, not understanding. She hadn't done anything. She wiped a fleck of sweat from her eye... and noticed the spatters of dried blood on her forearm. Oh yeah. "Has anyone strange tried to break in here?" she asked. None of the technicians moved or spoke. "Right," she muttered. "Stupid question." She drew her commlink and switched it on. "Kathryn, I'm in the control room. What should I do?"

"They're on their way up," Kathryn's tinny voice replied. "Keep them out of the control room until I arrive. I'm on my way up with a squad."

"Roger." Natsumi put the commlink away and strolled around the room. Her nerve endings felt like they were standing up and waving from her skin. There wasn't any one thing about any of this that wasn't like training and the proving missions she'd gone on with Kathryn. But the scale of it. She felt the weight of history pressing down on her. This is what Daddy meant by her destiny. Knowing it didn't help. "You lot better clear out of here," she growled at the technicians, drawing her lightsabers and working her fingers around the grips but not lighting them. "There's gonna be a big mess in here right quick."

As the workers scampered out Natsumi saw the faces of the security guards she'd killed superimposed on theirs. They looked exactly the same. They looked at her with identical expressions of raw terror. They saw not Natsumi Tenko, they saw grim Death, His skeletal hand reached out to still their frantically beating hearts.

Natsumi shook her head. Why should that bother her? The enemies of peace and order deserved to die. Killing them didn't bother her in the least. She was a warrior for peace, a champion of order, standing against the rising tide of chaos that threatened to drown the galaxy in blood and fire. The Republic died because it was lazy and corrupt, fattening itself on the sweat and tears of its citizens. The New Order was a beacon of hope against the gathering darkness of selfishness and greed. The death of every Rebel or criminal brought the galaxy one step closer to shining order and glorious stability.

But how did the deaths of those security guards bring us closer to the ideal order?

Natsumi couldn't think of an answer.

Delan approached the door cautiously. He peered through the small window in it. "Dang," he muttered, edging back.

"What is it?" Hoger asked.

"There's a unicorn in there," Delan replied.

Hoger blinked. "A what?"

"He means a horse with a horn on its forehead," Mackey supplied.

"And wings," Delan added.

"That's an alicorn," Mackey corrected.

"What?" Hoger repeated, totally bewildered.

"A horse with a horn is a unicorn," Mackey explained. "A horse with wings is a pegasus. A horse with wings and a horn is an alicorn."

"Look, I don't care if its a bloody gundark with piles," Hoger snapped. "If there's just one of it then the three of us can take it."

"No," Delan interjected. "We can't. She's a Jedi. I mean not a Jedi but a servant of the Emperor trained in Jedi ways."

Hoger licked his lips. He was old enough to have seen real Jedi in action. Even a weak one would be more than a match for the three of them. Mackey didn't really count; he wasn't a fighter.

"Hoger," Delan said. "I'll draw her off."

"Delan-" Hoger began.

"No," Delan cut in. "I'm the only one who can. You know that."

Hoger gritted his teeth. "All right. Kitzie, you and I will sneak Mackey in once Delan has the Jedi alicorn distracted. Mackey, are you ready to launch the worm?"

"That's an affirm." Mackey's voice quavered and he looked sickly green. "You get me in there and I'll do the deed."

"Good man." Hoger squeezed Mackey's shoulder. "Come on, Kitzie. We need to take cover."

The sound of a door opening penetrated Natsumi's reverie. She spun, blades lighting in her hands. A slim, nicely muscled Drafi male stood in the open doorway, a metal staff in his hands.

Natsumi wasn't in the mood for it. "Just what do you think you're going to do?" she demanded.

"Defeat you," he replied.

"With that stick?" Natsumi pointed with one of her blades. "Come on. You aren't that stupid."

"No." He grinned, stepping into the room and holding the staff horizontally before him, resting on the web between his thumbs and forefingers. He concentrated for a moment and the metal shimmered with a pale, bluish light.

"Ah," Natsumi exclaimed, nodding. "I get it now. You're one of those Nempo masters."

"Yep." The Drafi spun the staff. Traceries of blue fire sparked from the ferrules.

"Nempo is a pale reflection of true Jedi discipline," Natsumi said. But she dropped into a ready position. While charged with his ki the staff would cut like a lightsaber.

"Empty words," the Drafi asserted, passing the staff from hand to hand.

"I'd be more than happy to let you test them," Natsumi replied.

"Let us, then." He brought the staff to a halt, slantways in front of him. "Let our valor and skill say which philosophy is superior. May I ask your name?"

"Natsumi," Natsumi replied. "And yours?"


"The courage of your conviction does honor to your discipline." Natsumi crossed her sabers and bowed.

"As does yours." Delan returned the salute.

Quick as a wink Natsumi lunged. Just as quick Delan parried. His staff caught her blades as she struck high and low; streamers of energy hissed and crackled from the points of contact. Natsumi pressed, lunging and slashing; Delan fell back, his staff whirling. Somehow he always managed to block her thrusts. Natsumi fell back, studying him. He lunged; she swept his blow aside and struck with her other hand; he brought the other end of his staff up and blocked it.

"I'm surprised," Natsumi commented as they circled warily. "I thought the Jedi wiped out all you Nempo types. Something about it being a heresy against the true nature of the Force."

Delan chuckled. "I could say the same thing about you Sith, and with much better reason." He charged. Natsumi fell back; it took all her skill just to meet his flurry of lightning-fast strikes. Natsumi dove past him, slithering under a console. His staff smashed down, shattering the console in a shower of sparks. Natsumi bounced to her feet and backpedaled quickly to keep obstacles between them. Delan advanced, backing her ever closer to the door. If she didn't do something he'd force her right out of the control room. She made a shoving gesture with her hand. Delan flipped out of the way; the face of the console behind where he'd stood shattered. A flick of her wrist sent a chair flying at him; he dodged it handily.

"The courage of your conviction seems to be slipping, spawn of the Beast," Delan chuckled.

Hot rage wiped away all Natsumi's doubts. "You don't talk about Daddy that way, you filthy Rebel!" she snarled. Even as the words left her mouth she leapt, rolled, and struck.

The troopers faced outward as the open lift rose from the core's base to its summit. Kathryn stood at the center, apparently staring at nothing. With every sensor at her disposal she sought her quarry. They'd shut off the shield generator upon reaching the core; since then she'd felt it activate twice but only briefly, too little for her to accurately fix its location. Bennie and his band were probably on the top walkway by now. So long as Natsumi kept them out of the control room everything would be fine. In a moment she would arrive and close the trap. She smiled tightly. A brilliant conclusion to an important mission. Daddy would be pleased.

"Stand ready," Kathryn advised the squad. She carried her rifle comfortably on her arm. There'd be plenty of time to shoot whatever came into view. At least for her there would. In fact, as the lift rose the last couple meters she swung her weapon, catching sight of a standing figure on the walkway. She grinned when she recognized it as a stormtrooper; he stood with his rifle at present. Kathryn's smile vanished; he should have been covering the two prisoners kneeling before him with their hands on their heads. Well, it didn't matter-

In the same instant Kathryn noticed that the armor on the trooper's right arm wasn't properly attached to his torso she sensed the shield generator charging. She realized suddenly that she'd made a terrible mistake. Then the swirling force fields slashed through her and her squad.

Hoger got to his feet. His and Kitzie's bodies had obscured the fact that the trooper behind them lacked armor on his right leg. Mackey thrust the rifle at Hoger, who took it, and pulled off his helmet. He tossed it to the deck; it spun across the walkway and tipped over the edge, vanishing into the depths below. The armor pieces on his right arm, held in place only by the fact that he'd kept his arm bent, fell away. The shield pack shorted out in a shower of bright sparks and a spurt of acrid smoke. Hoger glanced at it- looking carefully past the carnage on the lift- and shrugged. "We're lucky to get as much use out of it us we did," he commented. "Now let's see how Delan's faring."

Even before he got close to the doorway Hoger realized that the noise and commotion in the control room had ceased. He gripped his rifle tightly, hoping it was a good sign and not a bad one.

Natsumi found herself crouched before Delan, one leg bent beneath her and the other straight out behind. The saber in her right hand pointed at the floor between Delan's legs. The other slanted back over her shoulder, catching the end of the staff that would have stove in her skull. The metal no longer shimmered; it glowed where the lightsaber touched it. Delan stood like a statue over her. His expression looked... supremely serene. With a slight quirking of the lips as if he were recalling an amusing anecdote or a fond memory. The ends of his staff sagged; it had been cut cleanly in the center. The end resting on Natsumi's saber fell off as the staff's weight pushed it through the glowing blade. Delan's body separated along its vertical centerline, the two halves falling in opposite directions. With a shuddering gasp Natsumi rose to her feet, backpedaling quickly to avoid the pool of blood spreading across the deck. She holstered her lightsabers smoothly enough but her hand shook as she drew her commlink. She felt utterly exhausted, as if every ounce of energy had been squeezed out of her. She didn't remember the end of the fight; her memory of it was like a dream that made no sense after one awoke. It occurred to her that she should be glad. She'd won; her enemy lay dead at her feet. But instead she felt wrung out and depressed.

A burst of alarm exploded in Natsumi's mind. For an instant she thought she was dying, it hit so hard. But it wasn't her. "Kathryn!" she screamed and pelted through the door.

Hoger yelped. The alicorn woman nearly bowled him over as she burst out of the control room.

"What the cop?" Kitzie exclaimed, blinking in surprise.

"Forget her!" Hoger shoved Mackey through the doorway. "Plant the worm and let's get out of here!"

Kitzie backed in after Hoger. I really ought to shoot her, she thought. The door shut in front of her before she made up her mind.

Natsumi encountered a spill of gore on the walkway. Judging from the armor fragments it had once been a group of stormtroopers. She leapt over it without slowing but didn't quite make it, slipping on a piece of tattered flesh and falling heavily. She rolled and came to her feet, ignoring a sharp twinge in her ankle just as she ignored the aches and pains the rest of her body. At a second puddle of gore- with a few intact bodies nearby- she walked through instead of jumping. Finally she reached a third puddle of on one of the lifts. At one side of it, half on the lift and half off, lay Kathryn.

"Kathryn!" Natsumi knelt at Kathryn's side, her knees splashing in pooled blood. Kathryn wasn't chopped into pieces, which Natsumi took to be a good sign under the circumstances. Other than that Kathryn looked absolutely awful: her clothes hung in bloody tatters and gaping wounds slashed every part of her. Bone, internal organs, and hybrid circuitry showed in many of them. Natsumi squeezed her eyes shut, running her hands across Kathryn's back without actually touching her. The sense she used to feel the lines of probability flowed out of her fingers and into Kathryn. She was cut up inside as badly as without; in some cases cybernetic components were the only things holding her together. Her life force guttered on the very edge of extinguishing, like a nearly burned out candle.

"Kathryn, don't die," Natsumi sobbed, tears rolling down her cheeks and splashing in the blood on Kathryn's back. Suddenly she understood; it seemed like her entire life snapped into perfect clarity. The assassination of Ferganal felt like a game because it was. There'd been risks, yes. Unforeseen circumstances, absolutely. But never anything Natsumi didn't think she could handle. Confidence in her own skill- and the skills themselves, instilled by thorough training- carried her past every obstacle. But skill hadn't defeated Delan; in that he'd been at least her equal. Anger hadn't defeated him either; given his ability if she'd let herself go like that he would have killed her. Only when he insulted Daddy did Natsumi find what she needed to conquer him. It seemed like anger but it came from somewhere else. Delan's comment had enraged her because she loved her Daddy. More than anything or anyone-

No, not anyone. As much as might be a better way to say it. As much as the woman who had been her mentor and companion for as long as she could remember. The woman who lay before her on the verge of vanishing forever into the Dark, where Natsumi would never see her again.

Natsumi gulped. Her love had defeated Delan. She'd let go of her knowledge, her anger, even her sense of self, and called upon the Force to defend Daddy because she couldn't do it herself. The Force entered her- replaced her- and gave her what she wanted. Natsumi didn't do a thing. The Force defeated Delan. All Natsumi did was ask.

Now, once again, Natsumi found herself in a situation where all her skills and training were useless. Death wasn't a thing she could attack; raging against it did absolutely no good. Only the pure power of the Force could bring Kathryn back. Natsumi exhaled deeply, performing mental exercises to clear her mind of distractions. Standing only in her love for Kathryn she called the Force into herself and gave herself to it utterly.

Kathryn floated in a gray, empty place. It felt strange not to feel the cybernetic portion of her mind. She shouldn't be able to exist without it; when a Rebel shot her in the face it destroyed not only her eye but a significant portion of her brain. It didn't seem to matter, though. In fact, as she thought back on her life it all seemed so terribly... maybe not trivial but definitely not so gravely significant as she always seemed to think it was at the time.

If not for her feeling of complete serenity Kathryn would have shed a tear thinking about her mother and father. Kurtus Nebulart had been a stunningly handsome and politically savvy individual, riding the dissolution of the Republic and the rise of the New Order to a planetary governorship. Dala Hess had used her body, her exotic beauty, and a ruthless, calculating intelligence to make herself a holovid star known throughout the galaxy. Getting married gave them each what they wanted: Kurtus gained a trophy wife to properly accent his position and Dala gained access to the New Order's aristocracy. That, and everything else they did, was calculated for effect- up to and including having a child. Rather than risk the vagaries of natural conception they had their genes blended in a genetics lab. Little Kathryn came out as everything they could have hoped for: her mother's beauty and physical perfection, her father's height, strength, and constitution, and both her parents' keen intelligence and perception. Of course she realized that her existence served only to compliment and enhance her parents' positions. Instead of rebelling, as did many children of famous, controlling parents, she participated enthusiastically- all the time watching and learning, working toward the moment when she grew strong and powerful enough to strike out on her own.

Being crowned Miss Nude Galaxy should have been Kathryn's big break. But when she strode boldly out onto the runway a fellow in the third row- later labelled a Rebel agent- stood up and shot her in the face with a large caliber pistol. Obviously she wasn't directly a party to what happened next but eventually she pieced it together. Medical science could repair her face and head but not her brain. An agent of the Imperial Security Bureau approached Kurtus and told him that if he volunteered Kathryn for a secret project they might be able to save her. Kurtus agreed and Kathryn was injected with alien nanites the ISB scientists had been studying. The nanites rebuilt her brain... and added a whole bunch of other things as well as replacing several of her perfectly healthy organs. In fact, she was the only one of several dozen test subjects who survived the process. But Kurtus and Dala couldn't accept their rebuilt daughter; cybernetics weren't fashionable and Kathryn's augmentations simply couldn't be hidden. Nor could they be removed; any such attempt would kill her. Kurtus asked his ISB contact to dispose of her quietly and announced to the public that she'd died of her wounds. Instead of liquidating her, however, the ISB offered Kathryn a job. She accepted, having no other place to turn- and discovered opportunities for obtaining power and prestige that even her parents couldn't have imagined. Kathryn threw herself into her work, rising quickly through the ranks. Her finest moment came when she assembled the case which led to her father's conviction for treason. She actually cried at his execution because it was such a wonderful moment for her. Since Dala wasn't convicted Kathryn arranged to have her grotesquely disfigured. Compared to all that babysitting Natsumi might seem like a step down but Kathryn took the assignment because it brought her closer to the real power in the Empire. If she hadn't died, saving the High Port might have earned her another promotion.

With a shock Kathryn realized that she was, in fact, deceased. It seemed like it should have bothered her more than it did... but like all the other things from the living world it just didn't seem important anymore. Her soul would rejoin the Force from which it sprang and she would become one with the glorious perfection of all Creation. Compared to that what could matter? Not even the Emperor and his great designs, nor the Rebellion that opposed him. From where Kathryn stood each was nothing but a flicker on the face of Infinity.

Something that felt like a bright light grew in Kathryn's sphere of perception. Was that the Force come to claim her? She felt unease; would it judge her based on how she'd lived her life? It seemed nonsensical; no human life could possibly mean anything when compared to the totality of All. Her unease grew; what had become of her perfect serenity? She groaned; the light hurt. She turned away- but it called to her. She looked back. It took shape. It looked like Natsumi, more perfectly beautiful than she had ever been in life, surrounded by a blazing halo Kathryn didn't think she could have looked at with physical eyes. She didn't think she'd be able to see it with physical eyes.

Come back, Kathryn. Please. I need you.

Kathryn felt inexpressibly sad. She wanted to tell Natsumi that she didn't need her or anyone else. She wanted to say that she'd enjoyed the time she'd spent in Natsumi's company even when she groused about it. But those where things for the living. She was past that now. Wasn't she?

Come back, Kathryn. I love you.

Even here Kathryn felt a shock at that. She couldn't remember anyone saying that to her, not and meaning it. At least not how Natsumi did. Not in words, which was perhaps just as well. Words could mean anything. They deceived as often as they enlightened. But this... it was as if a small piece of Natsumi had touched her, had become a part of her. She couldn't doubt the truth of it, not without denying her own existence.

If she'd possessed a hand Kathryn would have reached out to Natsumi. In this place it didn't matter; intent and deed were one.

Kathryn's eyelids fluttered open. She lay face down in a pool of blood and viscera. For a terrifying instant she feared it might be hers, that she'd reach down and find nothing left of herself below the waist or some such. But no. Burning pain in every part of it brought her immediate and complete awareness of her body. The electronic portions of her mind dispassionately reported that all her organs were in place and doing their jobs, more or less. She'd lost rather a lot of blood through internal and external wounds so at least some of that belonged to her. She repressed an irrational urge to demand that the floor give it back. Her diagnostics also reported that only a sudden and spontaneous healing of nearly all her wounds prevented an unrecoverable shutdown of her organic systems. In other words she should be dead.

A gentle force that seemed to pull equally on all parts of her lifted Kathryn out of the mess and rolled her onto her back. She found herself staring up at Natsumi's puffy, tear-streaked face. "Kathryn?" Natsumi asked in a voice that quavered on the edge of sobs. "Please tell me you're all right."

Only a croak escaped Kathryn's throat. She tried to sit up and succeeded only because the gentle force assisted her. Her pain seemed to be more the memory of wounds than the product of actual damage; scabs covered the slashes on her forearms, torso, thighs, and every part of herself she could see and probably all the parts she couldn't as well. Looking around she saw fragments of white body armor scattered about, frequently with body parts still inside them. She saw half a trooper's head laying in half his helmet; other than that the cut swooped and curved instead of running straight he might have been sectioned by a microtome. She noticed the slightly burned shield pack and understood at once. Her own shields had blunted the force fields just enough to keep them from chopping her up.

But not completely. Only the intervention of some other force-

The Force. Kathryn looked into Natsumi's eyes. "You saved me," she said. Memories of the place between life and death evaporated under the scrutiny of consciousness but the sensation of all encompassing love remained. Tears welled up in her eyes and for the first time since her father's death Kathryn Nebulart cried.

Natsumi wrapped her arms around Kathryn, hugging her fiercely. "Yes," he managed through the sobs that threatened to choke her. "I... I heard your soul cry out. I came and... brought you back." Her head dropped. "I'm sorry."

Gritting her teeth against the pain Kathryn scrambled to her feet. She leaned over the walkway railing, gazing down into the unimaginable depths of the power core. A person could get dizzy doing that; Kathryn almost did in spite of her electronically enhanced perception. "You didn't stop them, did you?" The core looked okay but it would take some time for it to build up pressure even after the worm was installed.

"No." Natsumi shook her head sadly.

Kathryn glanced over her shoulder at Natsumi and the heaps of gore and body parts on the lift. Abandoning the mission at such a critical stage ranked only one step below active treason on the scale of egregious offenses. Much to her dismay Kathryn found it impossible to view the situation with appropriate dispassion. Knowing that she'd be so much cold meat- like those troopers- if Natsumi hadn't acted cast a grim pall over her thoughts that no amount of reasoned discourse could dispel. Having only so recently- and narrowly- emerged from the shadow of Death Kathryn simply couldn't bring herself to blame Natsumi for saving her life no matter how proper and logical it might be to do so. "Well, come on," she said crossly, starting along the walkway. "Maybe there's still time." She stumbled; her shoes had been torn up. She kicked them off, shedding also the remains of her jeans and blouse. She scanned the walkway but no intact weapons remained.

"Lightsabers do not make me a Jedi," Natsumi said as she jogged at Kathryn's side.

"How very true." Kathryn grinned like a predator scenting its prey. I am a soldier of the Empire. I am the best and brightest, the last bastion of defense the galaxy has against the chaos of rebellion. I am a weapon. In her current state of mind it didn't sound silly at all.

"How are you doing?" Hoger asked. He held the blaster rifle against the crook of his arm with his left hand. With his right he stroked the receiver gently, as if it were a cherished pet.

"Just about got all the new modules installed," Mackey replied. He sat at a console with his instrument in his lap; flex connected it to a computer port.

"Any activity topside?" Hoger glanced at Kitzie, stationed by the control room's main entrance.

"There's a bunch of technicians up there," Kitzie replied. "I see them occasionally peeking around the corner. Whenever they see me they duck out of sight. I haven't seen any sign of anyone else."

Hoger licked his lips. Maybe this is going to work after all. Without the shield generator they couldn't cross the well around the core but if there weren't troops coming down from above maybe they could get out-

Kitzie yelped and dove. An explosion flung her headlong over a console; she landed in a heap and didn't get up. Hoger saw several stormtroopers charge into the stairwell before the door slammed shut in their faces. A heavier blast door dropped down behind it.

"Mackey, I presume?" Hoger said.

Mackey nodded. "I thought it rather rude of them, trying to crash the party, so they can just wait outside."

"Good man." Hoger looked through the window in the back door. He saw the alicorn and a human woman- naked and covered with blood- jogging along the walkway. "If there's a blast door for this one I think you'd better close it too."

"Got it." A heavy panel dropped into place.

Hoger picked up Kitzie's blaster, settling it in his left arm. She lay with her legs and hips in the pool of Blood Delan had left. Hoger had tried dragging Delan out of the middle of the floor but he sort of... fell apart. Fortunately Mackey couldn't see it from the station he'd chosen, which was probably why he'd picked it. Not as it mattered much; a slaughterhouse stink filled the control room so thickly one could almost cut it with a knife. Hoger shifted the muzzle of the blaster in his right hand, aiming it at Kitzie's head. He didn't think the blast had killed her; at this point it would be a kindness to send with her with her sisters rather than leave her to the ISB torturers-


"Yes, Mackey?" Hoger turned, coincidentally- or maybe not coincidentally- swinging his weapon away from Kitzie. He couldn't bring himself to do it, not just yet at any rate.

"We aren't leaving, are we?"

"It don't look that way." The door opening onto the walkway groaned. A spot on its surface discolored and started smoking. Hoger checked each of his blasters, switching the fire selectors to full automatic.

"Oh." Mackey stared into space. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"For... for giving me a chance to make my life... mean something."

"You're welcome, Mackey." Tears stung Hoger's eyes. "I..." He walked over and slipped an arm around Mackey's shoulders. "I'm sorry it came to this."

"Like you told Kitzie. We knew. We came anyway."

"Right." Hoger squeezed Mackey tightly. The smoking patch on the door glowed cherry red.



"I don't want to be captured."

"Take Delan's blaster," Hoger replied. "Make sure you set it against the top of your mouth, not the back."

"Thanks." Mackey picked up the carbine, staring intently at the muzzle and stroking the trigger with his thumb. "Hoger?"


"I'm scared."

"We all are," Hoger said gently. "Just... remember that once it's over, it's over. No worries." The point of a lightsaber burst through the door and started sawing along its periphery. Thunks and bangs suggested activity outside the other door as well.

Mackey smiled weakly. "Yeah. Maybe I'll get to see Georgia and Gwine. I... I never said but I really liked them. They were good people."

"Yes, they were." Hoger moved back to the center of the room. He set the rifle butts against his torso, holding one in each hand. He sighted carefully on the center of the doorway. He laughed.

"What is it?" Mackey asked pensively.

"Just... thinking about old times," Hoger replied. He remembered being a young man, hardly more than a boy, in the Republican army. He remembered trying to warn people about the New Order. He didn't understand why people couldn't seem to see it for what it was. Looking back now he understood that they hadn't wanted to see. The Republic always had existed so it always would exist. Ironically, that very belief brought about its destruction. People thought that no matter what they did the Republic would endure, even as they slowly killed it with the death of a thousand cuts. The Jedi could have stopped it but the Emperor disposed of them first, discrediting and later actively hunting them. But instead of resisting they just... sat there and took it. As if they couldn't bring themselves to believe that the moment had come to fight for what they believed in, and their very survival.

Somehow I always knew it would come to this, Hoger thought. The lightsaber had cut its way down one side of the door and now worked its way up the other. He remembered imagining himself as an old man, surrounded by grandkids. A pleasant fantasy... and never any more than that, not since his first combat mission. Hoger Cestus would die in combat. And if these Imperial goons think I'm going down without a fight they've got another thing coming.

Mackey shivered. He'd reached the point where his entire body quaked constantly. He'd never been so afraid in his life. He didn't want to die. But he'd heard of- and seen- the results of Imperial interrogation. They would break him. He would betray his friends, the people who took him in when no one else would. But even that seemed better than... whatever came after. Choose, he remembered Hoger saying. What makes you a person and not an animal is that you choose your life. For the first time he really understood that. Hoger meant that he, Mackey, should decide the course and shape of his life, rather than just... letting it happen.

That meant choosing the end as well as the middle.

Quickly Mackey disconnected himself from the instrument. It could do the job on its own now. He set it on the chair and pushed it against the console; hopefully no one would notice it right away. He sat down at a different console, on the opposite side of the room, turning his chair to face the doorway. Carefully he placed the gun in his mouth, with the muzzle against his palette as Hoger had indicated. It didn't feel nearly as strange as he'd thought it might. He put his thumb through the trigger guard. One stroke of the finger-

The door crashed out of its frame. The noise startled Mackey; his whole body twitched, including his thumb. Under the circumstances he would have said that was for the better.

"Ready?" Natsumi asked.

"Ready." Kathryn braced herself, her hands flat on the door. Hot sparks showered down on her forearms as Natsumi sawed her lightsaber through the last little tag of metal at the very top of the door. Kathryn knew, as sure as gravity, that anyone still inside the control room would open fire the instant the panel moved. But if it didn't fall out of the hole Natsumi had cut, well, they all might as well have stayed home. Kathryn felt the panel give a little. Not just yet-

The tag broke. The panel- a sandwich of the blast and regular door- settled. Kathryn shoved as hard as she could; it tipped away from her and fell to the control room floor with a horrendous crash. Even as the pressure came off her fingers she leapt to the side. A sleet of blaster bolts snapped through the opening.

Natsumi leaned against the wall opposite Kathryn, her sabers held vertically before her. "Kathryn, it looks like there's only one or two of them," she said. "I think I can handle it."

Kathryn's lip twitched. Her shields could repel blaster fire- at least for a short time- but not in the state they were in now. There wasn't anything she could do with her hands and feet that Natsumi couldn't do better. Letting Natsumi go alone was the logical thing to do. She opened her mouth to say so- but the words pressing at her lips weren't those. She struggled for a moment; all her training, her instincts, everything she was up to the point the shield pack had activated said those words were totally, absolutely wrong. But something had changed, permanently and irrevocably. Even the old Kathryn agreed that a politician's greatest tool was peoples' tendency to believe what they found comfortable rather than what was so. Denying what had happened between her and Natsumi was an act of weakness Kathryn simply could not countenance, even when fully aware of the implications. "We're a team," she said.

Natsumi's face lit up with such intense joy and affection Kathryn found it embarrassing but she refused to look away. "All right," she said. "You first, me second. On three. One, two-"

Natsumi leapt into the hole, her sabers already in motion. Kathryn heard the stuttering thunder of blaster fire; she slipped through, trying not to brush her bare skin against hot metal. A single man stood in the middle of the room, firing two rifles on full auto. Natsumi crouched on one knee; her blades flashed so quickly she seemed to have a dozen of them instead of merely two. Even to Kathryn the motion of Natsumi's arms was nothing but a blur. Slowly Natsumi gained her feet and moved forward, one halting step at a time. Kathryn kept right behind her; if Natsumi slipped even for an instant blaster fire would cut her and Kathryn down where thy stood but Kathryn wasn't concerned about that. It wouldn't happen. Natsumi brought Kathryn back from the dead. She would do this as well. There wasn't any evidence for it but Kathryn believed it.

Suddenly the noise stopped. Natsumi and the heavyset man in black leather stood almost face to face. The muzzles of his weapons glowed with the energy they'd channeled; the air stank with metal striped from the barrels and plastic parts heated to softness. Natsumi's blades flicked in opposite directions, like the blades of a pair of scissors. The man's expression of grim determination never left his face even as his body crumpled to the floor.

"That was Bennie," Kathryn heard herself say. "We... we should have kept him for interrogation."

"He's the one who tried to kill you, Kathryn," Natsumi said.

Kathryn said nothing. He'd tried to kill Natsumi too, as well as a lot of other people, and succeeded with quite a few.

"None of them were my beloved Kathryn," Natsumi whispered, as if reading Kathryn's thoughts. She brushed Kathryn's cheek, still holding her lightsaber. Kathryn felt the blade thrumming next to her skin.

"I understand." Kathryn laid her own hand over Natsumi's. "But we aren't done yet. We have to figure out what they did to the computer."

"Right." Natsumi stepped back and holstered her sabers. "What should I look for?"

Kathryn scanned the room quickly, turning about in place. She spotted a skinny human man with a coil of flex dangling from a cyberjack in what remained of his head. Probably he was the slicer... but the other end of his flex didn't connect to anything. "They probably had an AI unit somewhere," she said. "It's most likely hidden inside something. A tool box, or-"

A sharp report caused Kathryn to start and Natsumi to draw her sabers. A chair fell over; on it lay the remains of something that looked like a keyboard with a guitar neck attached. A small explosive charge had destroyed the body of it.

"I bet that's what we wanted," Kathryn sighed, moving to the chair and picking it up. Nothing much remained of the instrument; a flex connected it to the console. Kathryn sat, disconnecting the flex from the instrument and plugging it into a jack behind her ear.

"How's it look?" Natsumi asked after a moment.

"Bad," Kathryn replied. "They've already installed new power regulation protocols. I figure we have, oh, maybe thirty minutes before it builds up enough pressure to explode. Also, they've locked out all the controls and jammed all communications with this room."

"But you can crack it, right?" Natsumi asked hopefully.

Kathryn licked her lips. The worm was a brilliant piece of work; a master slicer had spent quite a long time crafting and perfecting it. She wasn't exactly a slouch in that department but thirty minutes-

"Could we smash the computers?" Natsumi suggested.

Schematics flashed through Kathryn's mind. "There's thirty-six control nodes scattered around the core well. I... don't think we could reach them in time, even if you flew."

A loud bang sounded behind the main door. Kathryn and Natsumi both glanced at it. "Can't you tell them we're the good guys?" Natsumi asked.

"No," Kathryn replied. "My on-board transmitters won't punch through the shielding and I'd have to slice the worm before I could get control of the regular comm system."

"They're not likely to listen to explanations," Natsumi commented.

"No," Kathryn agreed. They were probably setting up a torch to burn through the door. That cut down her and Natsumi's available time even more.

"Cop it!" Natsumi kicked a metal rod laying on the deck. It spun away. "There has to be something!"

A sudden inspiration flashed in Kathryn's mind. "Natsumi, you remember how we were looking for that Twi'lek woman?"

"Yeah?" Natsumi crossed her arms.

"You said it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And... you just knew when you were."

"Yeah." Natsumi leaned forward intently.

"Slicing is a lot like that. There's an answer in there somewhere... but I'd have to spend a lot of time guessing and searching to find it."

Natsumi stroked her cheek. "Unless you guessed right the first time."


Natsumi bit her thumb. For herself what Kathryn suggested would be easy. But how could Natsumi follow the lines of probability for someone else? For a task she didn't even know how to do? Her nostrils twitched; glancing at the main door she saw smoke. Time was running out. "Okay," she said. "I... I guess we have to try. I, I'll have to connect with your mind. So I can get in touch with what you're doing. Then... I guess we'll just do whatever it takes."

"Okay." Kathryn nodded. "Do what you have to."

Natsumi pulled up a chair and sat on it backwards. She gently gripped the sides of Kathryn's skull. "Just... let it happen," she said. "That'll make it easier for both of us." Kathryn nodded.

Natsumi felt her senses flowing out into Kathryn. It was easier than she'd expected. Maybe because she'd already touched Kathryn once before-

A blizzard of images exploded into Natsumi's mind.

A tall, handsome man with a warm engaging smile but eyes as cold as ice.

A beautiful woman, as perfect as a china doll. Natsumi shivered from the utter loathing in the woman's expression.

"No, you can't play with them, darling. They aren't your sort of people."

"I'm sorry, dearest. Your daddy's a busy man. He doesn't have time to play right now."

"You'll like the private school. You'll make lots of friends there."

"Are you daft? If you had to sleep with someone couldn't you at least have picked someone better than that- that nobody?"

Natsumi moaned. She felt herself drowning in- in Kathryn. She didn't understand what had gone wrong but her only chance was to break the link-

A shrilling alarm hit Natsumi like a shock rod. She screamed, tumbling backward out of her chair. Warnings flashed and alarms blared from nearly every console. "Oh no!" she shrilled.

"Natsumi!" Kathryn grabbed Natsumi's arms. "It's all right! We succeeded! I managed to initiate an emergency shutdown!"

Natsumi blinked. "You mean-"

"Yes." Kathryn grinned fit to split her face. "We aren't going to die after all."

"Yeah!" Natsumi leap into Kathryn's arms, hugging her fiercely. Kathryn felt slimy, which Natsumi couldn't understand until she realized that sweat sheened Kathryn's skin. The air stank. Natsumi glanced over her shoulder; a fountain of sparks had nearly completed its circuit of the main door. "Our guests will be arriving soon," she commented.

"Yes." Kathryn rose, leading Natsumi to the center of the room. She sank to her knees, her hands clasped on her head. Natsumi imitated her.

"Take off your belt," Kathryn suggested.

"Oh yeah." Natsumi did so, tossing the belt with its holstered weapons out onto the floor in front of her.

The door fell in with a tremendous crash. Stormtroopers leapt through the opening, strangely ethereal in the swirling smoke. Half a dozen of them advanced on Kathryn and Natsumi, weapons leveled. "Freeze!" one of them shouted unnecessarily. "Identify yourselves!"

"Captain Kathryn Nebulart, Imperial Security Bureau, Investigations Department, on detached anti-insurgency duty," Kathryn said.

"Natsumi Tenko, junior secretary of the Emperor's personal staff, on detached duty with Captain Nebulart," Natsumi said.

"Come with us," they commanded brusquely.

"Would someone pick up my sabers?" Natsumi asked as she rose, keeping her hands on her head.

"Sir, this one's still alive," a trooper reported. He knelt by a black and white furred humanoid with a long, fluffy tail. Her pleated skirt had flipped up, leaving her pelvis bare.

"Bring her," the troop commander said. When two troopers grabbed the woman's arms she woke up, struggling wildly. Another trooper shot her with a stun bolt.

"Looks like you'll get to interrogate someone after all," Natsumi commented.

"Yep." Kathryn smiled. There'd be a lot of explaining to do but she could handle it. They'd accomplished the mission, which was what really mattered. A few of the troopers glanced at her when she started laughing but didn't say anything.

Kathryn felt inexpressible joy at being back in her black ISB uniform, though not the slightest hint of it showed in her face or posture as she strode through the Kestrel's corridors. The fast corvette would get them to Coruscant in about a week. Then they'd report to Daddy. Kathryn couldn't suppress a twinge of unease. Both she and Natsumi served the Empire faithfully and they'd succeeded in saving the High Port... but things hadn't gone quite as expected. Daddy could get... sensitive about that, sometimes.

When the door to their quarters opened Kathryn found Natsumi sitting, naked, upon the bed. Kathryn stepped through and let the door close behind her. "What are you doing?" she inquired. She could imagine what the crew probably thought about her and Natsumi sharing quarters but so far she hadn't heard so much as a peep about it. Probably because they'd heard of Kathryn's fearsome reputation in Investigations. Merely in wandering about the ship for the last few days she'd uncovered a dozen different things that she could probably work up into chargeable offenses with only minimal effort. At another time she would have made careful notes and forwarded them to ISB headquarters; if deemed important such notes were passed on to local agents. If not they stayed in a large database for possible correlation with other bits of data. Kathryn spent much of her regular duty time sifting through that mountain of data, looking for unnoticed connections and hidden patterns. During her career she'd launched millions of investigations. The reason she neglected to send the notes now was from the knowledge that such reports- even if never actioned- could profoundly affect a person's career or even life. An ISB black mark never went away. The individuals involved seemed like good people dedicated to their jobs, involved in no more skullduggery than was typical for a military organization. Jeopardizing their futures for what would, in all probability, never amount to anything disturbed her. That disturbed her because Natsumi's lackadaisical attitude seemed to be rubbing off on her. She resolved to log the four most significant incidents; it would look funny if she changed her habits suddenly. Kathryn knew that other investigators were constantly going over her file, looking for anomalies.

"Waiting for you," Natsumi replied. "How was therapy?"

"Painful," Kathryn replied. Bacta treatment could, in time, heal just about any wound. That didn't mean a person had to enjoy it.

"Take off your clothes and lie here," Natsumi directed.

"Why?" Kathryn asked, not moving.

Natsumi rolled off the bed and came right up to Kathryn. "Because I need to touch your bare skin," Natsumi said, stroking Kathryn's cheek. "If not for your cybernetics I could probably do it through your clothes, but... well."

Kathryn said nothing. Her expression didn't change, not even slightly. Bacta couldn't erase the sharp, white scars crisscrossing her face and body. Natsumi claimed she could. It really doesn't matter, Kathryn wanted to say. She didn't because she wasn't sure it was so. She couldn't do anything about her cyberware, not without maiming herself. But did that mean she had to live with the scars? With a twinge of guilt Kathryn realized that being beautiful meant more to her than she liked to admit.

"Please?" Natsumi caressed Kathryn's cheek. "If... if not for you then... for me? It... it hurts me to see you like this. I... want you to be beautiful again."

"Okay." Kathryn unsealed her tunic. She wasn't the sort to delay making a decision nor implementing it once made. After all, it could be argued that she owed Natsumi a lot. It seemed harmless enough to let her try.

And Natsumi thought Kathryn looked beautiful, even with her cyberware. That affected Kathryn rather more than she liked to admit. After carefully laying out her uniform on a chair she sat down on the bed. "Front or back?" she asked.

"Back," Natsumi said. Kathryn stretched out on her back, arms at her sides. "I don't know how long this'll take," Natsumi added, laying down beside Kathryn. "I'm still pretty new at this part of things." She placed her finger against a scar on Kathryn's temple and traced it slowly.

Kathryn gasped. Natsumi's touch felt like fire and ice at the same time. It left her skin feeling somehow... charged. Faintly tingling. It wasn't a pleasant sensation, exactly... but wasn't especially uncomfortable, either. According to Kathryn's chronometer several hours passed while Natsumi traced and re-traced the scars on Kathryn's head and shoulders.

Natsumi sat up and stretched. "Ahh," she exclaimed, holding out her hand. A mirror floated from the dresser. "Look at yourself," she directed, holding the mirror before Kathryn's face.

Kathryn stared at her reflection. The scars were gone, at least on her face and shoulders. She brought her hand up; the scars on her arm looked even uglier by comparison.

"Shall I continue?" Natsumi asked, setting the mirror aside. Kathryn nodded. Natsumi traced lines down onto Kathryn's chest. Kathryn gritted her teeth; the soft tissue in her breasts seemed to amplify the sensation. Natsumi traced her fingertip around one of Kathryn's nipples, then cupped the breast in her hand and squeezed. Her tongue gently flicked the other nipple.

Kathryn drew a breath between her clenched teeth. She felt beads of sweat popping out on her forehead. This is what you wanted all along, isn't it? she thought. To get your hands on me. I oughta tell you to stuff it in your ear. She never quite got around to it, though.

The slap of Kathryn's boot soles against the marbled stone floor echoed down the enormous corridor. She wore a brand new uniform, purchased and custom tailored for this occasion. She'd trimmed her hair off short- almost a crew cut- because the shield pack had hashed it up as badly as the rest of her. On her left breast she wore all her decorations, including one for the most recent operation. She diverged from uniform standard only in wearing a holster on both hips instead of merely one.

Natsumi walked to Kathryn's right. She wore black leather shorts, a matching top that laced together in front, and black suede boots. Her fur- conditioned until it gleamed like Kathryn's boots- looked a little uneven in places where it hadn't quite had enough time to grow back properly. Despite many hours of work her wings still looked ratty but if she kept them tightly folded it didn't show. She'd even buffed her horn though Kathryn didn't think it possible to improve the natural finish.

The corridor enlarged as one approached the far end, a clever bit of forced perspective that made it seem longer and larger than it was. Kathryn had to say it worked; she felt very, very tiny. Finally they arrived before an enormous round door embossed with the Imperial seal; two guards in the red helmets and cloaks of the Emperor's bodyguard stood watch before it. They did not move, speak, or acknowledge the visitors in any way. After a moment the door separated into two valves which withdrew into the walls to either side. Kathryn and Natsumi continued into the audience room.

The floor sloped upward through a series of steps to large black chair mounted on a wide pedestal. Enormous, circular windows looked out across the city. One could tell that the audience chamber sat at a level much higher than the other buildings in the area; the windows looked down upon them, as if from a low-flying aircraft. Kathryn and Natsumi each dropped to one knee, bowing forward until they looked straight at the floor. After what felt like a long time the chair turned slowly. With the light behind it the chair's occupant was little more than a dark blur, with lighter spots representing his hands and face. "Rise," he commanded, one hand lifting from the chair's arm and gesturing. Kathryn and Natsumi stood.

"You're looking well, my dear," the figure continued.

"Thank you, Daddy." Natsumi smiled.

"And you, Captain Nebulart. You've come through your ordeals quite handsomely."

"Yes, Your Highness." Kathryn kept her eyes rigidly forward. Not even with her ocular antennae did she try to look directly at him.

"Come here, darling." A pallid, gnarled hand beckoned; Natsumi walked up to the chair. The hand caressed her cheek and jaw. "I'm pleased, my dear. You've grown strong."

"Thank you, Daddy." Natsumi practically beamed.

"I was most impressed to hear how you defeated the attack on Chiwa High Port. And exposed that Rebel cell on Menoloc."

"Thank you, Daddy."

"Ah, don't think I haven't noticed your contribution to young Natsumi's development," he added, beckoning to Kathryn. "Come up here."

"Yes, Your Highness." Kathryn walked up, standing stiffly beside Natsumi.

"You seem to have recovered... most splendidly from your injuries, Captain," he commented. The hand reached for her; with a shock Kathryn realized that he meant to touch her, as he had Natsumi. She couldn't possibly imagine why but it seemed imprudent to question or refuse. She bent forward. His fingers- bony and long but surprisingly powerful- probed her throat, cheek, and forehead. He traced what had once been a scar, though not even a medical scanner could detect it now. "Your work, my darling?" his other hand patted Natsumi's.

"Yes Daddy!" Natsumi couldn't help grinning.

"Yes, indeed." He nodded thoughtfully. "As proud as I am of your achievements, and as grateful as I am for your loyalty, my enemies give me no rest. I must send you at once on a new mission. Lord Klavern will brief you." He settled back in his chair, his eyes flicking from Natsumi to Kathryn. After a moment he turned away, toward the windows.

Kathryn and Natsumi bowed, then withdrew. Natsumi seemed pleased with the encounter but Kathryn wasn't. She couldn't imagine the Emperor calling her halfway across the galaxy to pat her on the cheek, make small talk, and give her an assignment. Something important had happened that she'd somehow missed. Since it intimately involved her personal and professional future she intended to find out what it was.

As the door closed behind his two recent guests the Emperor gazed out across his capital city without seeing it. He'd foreseen that the mission to Valda would be a critical moment in Natsumi's development. The death of her friend, under those circumstances, would have focused Natsumi's anger, compressing and hardening it. She would turn her pain of loss upon the rebels, striking them down in a fit of rage and hate. To save Kathryn's life Natsumi had called upon something, yes, but not rage. She called upon it again, in a more refined way, to heal Kathryn's scars. Worse yet he saw it in Kathryn, too. Not so bright perhaps but definitely present and gradually unraveling the knot of hatred in her heart.

He sighed. Genetic engineering had seemed like a clever way to avoid the problems arising from cloning Force sensitives. His technicians had assembled Natsumi out of DNA samples extracted from individuals belonging to some of the greatest Jedi families. As she grew in a cloning tank he had impressed his own thoughts upon her. She emerged fully formed, without the mental instabilities common to Jedi clones, already a powerful warrior. Years of training and development compressed into a few months. Even if he had to impress each one individually he could manufacture an army of Natsumis in very little time. But those promising beginnings had come to a disappointing end. The all important rage had never materialized. Natsumi did not hate, not the way he needed her to. This disturbing streak of goodness in her, if properly exploited, might even lead to her turning to the Light. Briefly he considered having her and Kathryn executed immediately but decided against it. That would be wasteful. Better that they be expended in the accomplishment of a useful goal. He touched a button on the arm of his chair.

A door- not the main one- opened. Footsteps approached the throne. When they stopped he turned toward them. A middle-aged man with pale, almost pasty skin and dark, jet black hair knelt before him.

"Lord Sul," the Emperor began, "I have sent Natsumi and Captain Nebulart on a mission. You will command the force with supports them."

"Am I to insure that they fail, my master?" Lord Sul asked. He'd opposed this plan from the beginning.

"No, let them try," the Emperor replied. "If they succeed, all the better. But they are not to return afterward. Dispose of the project notes, staff, and equipment as well."

"As you wish, my master." Lord Sul bowed deeply and withdrew.

"Imperial expansion in the Brasa cluster has been stymied by the presence of a non-aligned star faring civilization," Lord Klavern said. He was an enormous, corpulent individual, despite which his eyes looked somehow hollow and sunken. Kathryn realized that a lot of people close to the Emperor looked like that. She wondered why it was.

"At the moment the Imperial star fleet lacks the weight of force to beak the defensive line by direct assault," Lord Klavern continued. "However, intelligence indicates that one flank of their front is anchored by a space station, here." He poked his pointer into a hologram map of the known galaxy. "This station and the space around it are protected by an energy field that our forces cannot cross. Your mission is to penetrate this station and discover a way to deactivate the defensive screen. A reaction force under the command of Lord Vera Sul will be waiting to exploit the breach. With this station under our control our forces will be able to attack the enemy's flank and rear. Their defensive line will collapse and our forces will have free run of their territory."

"How tightly sealed is this station?" Natsumi asked.

"Refugees fleeing Brastin, Galda, and Nekar are being processed through there," Lord Klavern replied.

Natsumi snorted. "Piece of cake."

"Getting in, yes," Kathryn agreed. "Do we have any agents in place?"

"No," Klavern said. "Furthermore, our information on the station itself is very limited."

"So we extemporize." Natsumi chuckled. "Sounds like fun."

"I assume you'll provide us with that information?" Kathryn inquired.

"Of course," Klavern said. "In addition, you will be trained in a dialect local to one of the systems in question. My office will provide you with any background and cover information you require."

"Let's get to work, then." Kathryn rose to her feet.

"We gonna kick ass, sister!" Natsumi grinned broadly, punching Kathryn in the arm.

Kathryn looked down at Natsumi. She realized suddenly that Natsumi's bonhomie affected her. She still found it an annoyance to be tolerated, yes... but it also awoke feelings Kathryn Nebulart would not have thought she could experience. Having spent her whole life analyzing motives and looking for angles, she couldn't help doing it now. The Kathryns who existed before and after Valda looked the same, right down to the smallest detail... but they weren't. Somehow, contact with Natsumi at that critical moment had changed a fundamental axiom about who the person calling herself Kathryn Nebulart thought she was. It was as if Natsumi had picked up the block at the very top of a pyramid and turned it around. The pyramid looked the same... but to a person standing on that peak the view was completely different. That's why the Emperor met them in person. He'd wanted to examine them, to see how they'd changed. Now he'd sent them off to the ass end of space to assist with a minor campaign of little strategic importance to the grand scheme of things. She didn't like the implications of that, not one bit.

"This place have a name?" Natsumi asked.

"The locals call it Dreamstar Station," Klavern replied.

Episode 3