STAR WARS Episode 9, The Predator's Prism, Volume 3 of the Alternate Universe Trilogy

The QRV: Quantum Retrovirus

"Gwonameeth, are you picking anything up?" Awswi asked, speaking into his helmet mic as he glanced across at the other Jedi fighter.

Awswi knew it wasn't really necessary to address the telepathic Jedi Master verbally, but he had always felt as if it wasn't polite to make such an exception for someone so exotic. It seemed somewhat prejudicial. He thought it was more impartial for him to express himself to everyone in the same manner, even if the answer would necessarily be nonverbal. In response, the image of an ocean devoid of sea life formed in his mind. Telepathy apparently wasn't telling Gwonameeth anything beyond the emptiness also indicated on Awswi's scanners.

As they continued to plumb the decimated depths of what had once been the Geonosis star system, the Force finally led them to the ravaged remnant of the principal planet. Its atmosphere and the upper crust of one hemisphere had been ripped away by the stellar explosion. Every life form had been obliterated. Anybody who was familiar with its former topography would've called it bleak, but now it was altogether barren and blasted.

And yet, as they orbited the dark and desolate semi-sphere, Gwonameeth and the scanning systems on their fighters began detecting an underground cavity in which both organic and even technological activity were impossibly present. They exercised extreme stealth while landing the fighters just outside the ray-shielded entrance. They then donned tailor-made spacesuits before disembarking. But a cursory examination quickly revealed that there was no way around the ray shield. And if they used their lightsabers to excavate their way through the rock face, they would depressurize the cavernous enclosure beyond. However, Gwonameeth's telepathy identified the occupants as Bothans, with whom the Jedi Order and the Rebel Alliance had always enjoyed an amicable relationship. It consequently made sense to dispense with secrecy and simply contact the alcove's occupants. Gwonameeth was able to identify the appropriate frequency, and Awswi switched his helmet mic over for the purpose.

"Greetings in the name of the Force, my Bothan brothers," he affably announced. "I am Jedi Master Awswi. My associate and I seek an audience with you so that we might discuss the likely whereabouts of a band of Tusken Raiders for whom we are looking. May we enter?"

A second ray shield formed further down the rocky conduit. The one that had been blocking their entrance then dissipated. Once they'd stepped into the technological airlock, the first baffle reformed behind them and then the interior partition was removed. They were thus able to enter the area in which the Bothans were conducting their industry, effecting repairs to a small fleet of Geonosian ships. The pair of Jedi Masters immediately recognized the configuration of the craft that had been used by the Tuskens. Since their spacesuits confirmed that they had stepped into a controlled environment, they took a moment to remove their helmets. The most nearby Bothan moved to greet them as they were completing the ritual.

"Welcome, friends of the Force. I'm Seng," he intoned, his whiskers framing the words. "Are you in need of any refreshment? Your business must be terribly important to bring you to such a ruined region. But surely you can allow us to extend you a little hospitality."

Understanding the importance of such pleasantries, Awswi answered, "We are grateful. But please do not overly deplete your stores on our account. Perhaps a beverage would suffice, that and a bit of information."

As he led the Jedi Masters to an area that appeared to have been provided for workers who were taking breaks, Seng said, "You mentioned a band of Tusken Raiders. We had a worrisome encounter with just such a group of those predatory people, but it was years ago. In a peculiarly altruistic gesture, it seems that the Hutts provided transports to relocate their various tribes from Tatooine. They must've commandeered the one that showed up here."

"What happened and how long ago?" Awswi asked as he accepted a beverage from Seng.

"I think it was right before you moved your temple to Tatooine. Our ray shield is designed to allow for pressurization of the compartment," the Bothan said in reply. "It's not really for defense. The rock enclosure could still be compromised. Of course, that would kill all of us inside. And I'm pretty such it's what they were preparing to do, but then something strange happened."

"What was that?" Awswi inquired as Seng extended appropriate amenities to Gwonameeth.

"They started sending out a distress signal," Seng shook his head and snorted in confusion as he responded. "At first, we thought it was some kind of trick, designed to get us to voluntarily lower our ray shield so they could take us hostage. But then they obviously surrendered the ship back to the original crew, whom they fortunately hadn't killed. We had only a brief exchange with them before they headed off toward Hutt Space. They had some kind of medical emergency. No one knew from where the contagion could've even conceivably come, but it sounded as if some of the Tuskens very quickly succumbed to an incredibly fatal infection. The crew quarantined the survivors and headed toward the nearest Hutt medical facility."

Awswi had been considering the coincidence between the distress signal in Seng's account and the one mentioned by Jedi Master Julither, up until the Bothan included the disturbing detail about some of the Tuskens unexpectedly expiring. It seemed as if the time weapon's method of operation had been exposed, but he was stunned by how far back in time they'd been removed.

"They were killed by some unknown disease?" he pressed.

"And that's what's so strange," Seng agreed. "The ship had been in space for what might've been months. I think the Tuskens decided to attack us because they were literally running out of provisions. Whatever killed them couldn't have come from Tatooine. And it didn't sound like they had made port anywhere in between. If the foodstuffs were infected, everybody should've gotten sick. And I'm sure the captive crew would've only been given the leftovers; yet, they were utterly unaffected. It just doesn't make any sense. As long ago as this was, will you still go after them?"

After exchanging a glance with Gwonameeth, Awswi answered, "It might not be necessary. We are trying to ascertain the disposition of a specific group of Tusken Raiders. Although you've helped us, we now need to reconsider how it will be best to go about our business. You say they headed toward Hutt Space, toward the nearest such medical facility?"

"They clearly stated their destination," Seng replied. "but they'd have reached it long ago."

"We're very grateful for all your assistance, Bothan brother," Awswi ceremoniously said with a bow. Gesturing with his hand, he concluded, "We wish you and your associates great success in all your industry here. May the Force be with you."

After Seng responded in kind, the two Jedi Masters took their leave of the ray-shielded work area. Once they were back out on the surface and making their way toward their fighters, Awswi switched back to their secure frequency and said, "I do not like having to give an ally so evasive an answer, but the truth is simply too terrible. Once we have powered up the ships, I will contact the Grand Master and report our findings. But I doubt if she'll send us after the Tuskens now. I'm not even sure what course of action to recommend. Do you have any ideas?"

Once more, the image that formed in his mind in response was of an ocean that was devoid of any sea life.

Grand Master Solo stood in the middle of the practice floor. The encompassing observation area was practically choked with padawans and Jedi Knights. Han and Chewbacca were also in attendance. In her highly-skilled hands the Grand Master held the Centrifuge, her newly finished three-section saberstaff. As she activated its emerald emanations, its electrostaff center section, made of phrik alloy, hummed and glowed. After a moment's meditation, using the Force to make an appendage of the prototype armament, she surrounded herself with its spinning perimeter of incinerating illumination. The weapon's swirling motion produced a signature sound that echoed off the massive stone walls and suggested a disturbed swarm of exceedingly large insects. This was a weapon the very noise of which would give serious pause to any potential opponent.

For several scintillating minutes she put the weapon through its pulsating paces. Technique after advanced technique were demonstrated as the Force informed her of the various methods by which the device could be deployed. Unlike its precursor, made of wood or sometimes metal, the Centrifuge couldn't be grasped by its blades; at least, not unless its wielder could safely take hold of plasma emanations. But this shortcoming did not appear to make it the least bit unwieldy to Leia. The onlookers were reminded of security recordings they'd seen from the Akul.

As she powered down the device, she looked to Avalynn. Her previous padawan discerned that the Grand Master wanted her to take charge of the weapon, although she wasn't initially aware of the reason for the handoff. But as Leia's gaze met that of Han, her husband understood what all the Force-sensitive individuals in the room still had yet to discover. Gwonameeth would have known, but the telepathic Jedi Master was still elsewhere in the disturbed spaces of the Arkanis Sector. The time for the delivery of their child had come.

Like many expectant mothers in civilized sectors of the galaxy, Leia was wearing a bracelet that allowed her to instantly alert a team of obstetric droids. As the mechanical midwives arrived in the room, everyone made sure to clear the path to the medical bay. Leia made her way out in front of all her admirers while Han and Chewy attached themselves to the entourage. In spite of her original expectations when handed the Centrifuge, believing everyone would want to handle the new weapon, Avalynn discovered that she was being abandoned as everybody went instead to the waiting area outside the infirmary. Securing the saberstaff in a display case that'd already been rearranged to make the required room; she followed the throng from the practice chamber.

Han stayed in the delivery room the entire time. But once Leia had been made comfortable, Chewy shortly emerged and joined the rest of the well-wishers. Aside from the observation deck of the northwest tower, the view from the waiting area outside the infirmary was without equal. It provided a picturesque distraction for the members of the group, enabling them to pass the time as patiently as possible. Since it was evening, the dusky hues of the desert populated the pastel sky and created a surrealistic backdrop for the arrival of new life.

Eventually emerging from the delivery room, Han announced, "We've known for awhile that we were going to have a son. We decided early on to name him after Leia's well-known brother. And you'll all be able to meet Lucas in just a little while."

"How's he doing?" Avalynn took the opportunity to ask.

"I always thought of kids as looking kind of delicate," Han replied. "But I would say he looks strong enough to pull the ears off of a gundark."

With alarm, Julither had informed the members of the hunting party that she perceived Dari as being in danger. Instructing Cyrella and Zayana to find a location in which they believed they could safeguard their respected companions, the Jedi Master headed off to assist her padawan. They had no more than located a defensible position when Cyrella passed their responsibility to Zayana alone. And then, brandishing the Gallantry, she too abandoned them to race back in the direction of the landing pad.

Zayana was momentarily mystified by the way in which their entire situation was so abruptly altered. But after no more than several minutes of such involuntary inactivity, the Force informed her that Cyrella was also now in dire danger. Activating her lightsaber, she authoritatively turned to the two men.

"Watch our six," she insistently said. "We're going back."

Zayana cut a wide enough swath that Varnic and Craydic were able to back step while they defended the rear flanks from possible approach by any predator. Neither took any exception to the commanding attitude that the Jedi Knight had found it necessary to adopt. Whatever danger now existed had caught them improbably exposed in the jungle. Although armed, the men were not confident of their safety in this uncertain situation. And it was impossible for either to believe that the unnamed peril to Dari didn't also include Demorin. The pair had departed together. And if they'd become separated, Demorin might also still be unarmed.

As they were still working their way toward the landing platform, the Nubian Nadir suddenly appeared in the sky and began firing on the area just ahead of them. Moments later, the shields of the Forthright were raised. In all the commotion Zayana was not aware that Dari and Demorin were moving into the jungle at a right angle away from them. She was conspicuously conscious of the Nadir's target, her longtime friend and fellow Jedi Knight, Cyrella. But Scree security ships converged on the scene with almost improbable rapidity and immediately engaged the attacker. Darth Umbrage was forced to cloak his spacecraft and withdraw.

As Zayana and the two men finally reached the platform, they heard Cyrella over their com-links saying, "Scree security, do not lower the Forthright into the underground complex. Crew of the Forthright, secure all bulkhead doors and initiate ray shield containment. Use the emergency airlocks to disembark as soon as you've done this. There may be an explosive device hidden on the ship. We'll need droids to do a compartment by compartment search, checking behind every possible panel. Darth Woe was on that ship for a reason. We don't know how long he was there or how many areas he accessed before he fell. I need everyone on the surface to rendezvous at the landing platform. But stay at the perimeters furthest from the Forthright just in case it's about to blow. Hopefully, the ray shielding will help to contain any explosion."

Moments later, Cyrella herself joined the remnant of the hunting party on the landing pad. It only took several additional seconds for the starship's skeleton crew to carry out her instructions and leave through the emergency airlocks. Although the Jedi Knights were intimately aware that Julither had transformed into the Force, it was clear to their associates from the way their gazes were fixed upon the main airlock door that they desperately desired to reenter the ship and carry out their own investigation of the aftermath. And everybody assembled was worriedly aware that the leader of the diplomatic envoy, the only Jedi Master present, had just been eliminated.

Since Cyrella had seen Dari and Demorin outside the ship and instructed them to flee, it did not immediately dawn on her that they really should've responded to her summons to assemble. As she'd been taught to do, she was focusing on the moment. It wasn't until she noticed the way Chancellor Varnic was looking anxiously around that she registered the lack of any sense of the whereabouts of the third Jedi Knight or her companion. But having been inadvertently relegated to a supportive role, Zayana was already intensely aware of the absence.

"Where the hell are Dari and Demorin?" she uneasily asked.

Although the underground realm of the Scree was usually well-illuminated, every inhabitant religiously wore accouterments that could double as light sources in the event of an emergency. As a result, Demorin swiftly discovered just how disastrous a mistake he'd made by entering the abandoned lava tube. Since their vision included the infrared spectrum, the Crimpth would have eventually detected him anyway. But his situation was made worse when his lights inadvertently advertized his presence. The conduit's predatory occupants became aware of him at exactly the same moment that he discerned their nightmarish shapes.

He would've been slaughtered in the very next second if he hadn't been levitated out of the path of the lunging leviathan. As it swept by him he saw several massive stones, debris that had been deposited when the rent in the conduit originally opened, eerily float from the tunnel's base and forcefully fly into the backside of the rampaging monster. The unexpected impacts caused it to go careening further down the passageway before it could turn to make a second attempt. By the light of the Violet Vergence, since his suspended situation made him too disoriented to think about directing his light-emitting accessories, he beheld in horror that the nest's other occupants were quickly converging on their location.

Dari's skillfully directed Force-push deflected them from their course, causing them to crash into a nearby rock wall. The levitated hail of stones that followed resulted in a temporary retreat. But they knew their prey was seriously disadvantaged. Therefore, they circled at a distance until the trespassing pair was surrounded by a salivating arc of merciless maws. Demorin was placed back on the tunnel's floor. But Dari had strategically put him down behind her. And with her free hand she made a cautioning gesturing, indicating that he should remain there. It was distressing to him in the extreme that she was being forced to face this menace alone. But since he was not armed he couldn't even protect himself, let alone contribute to their defense.

"Has anyone ever tried talking to them?" she inquired over her shoulder.

"What?" he incredulously asked in reply.

Understanding his response as a repudiation of the idea, she then addressed the assembly of Crimpth, saying, "In the event that you have more than a rudimentary awareness and actually possess some sort of sentience, you should know that I am completely capable of killing you all. However, I have no wish to do so. It was only by accident that we intruded into your domain. We ask that you excuse this infraction and allow us to leave."

There was a very palpable pause in the remorseless way the creatures were regarding Dari and Demorin, but then they all attacked at once. She had the impression that something of what she said had been understood, but instinct was acting in the place of reason. Maybe by violating the nest, she and Demorin had committed an unforgivable infraction. Perhaps it was just hunger that required them to reject her request. Regardless of the cause, she now had no choice but to demonstrate her prowess for dispatching the predators.

The charging Crimpth encountered a horizontal avalanche. Spinning with the motion as she used her left hand to telepathically hurl the igneous ammunition, she presented her lightsaber to those that made it around the blistering barrier. As she fended them off, she used the Force to sweep the stones back in the opposite direction and pummel the predators from their other side.

Most of the Crimpth found it very difficult to establish firm footing amidst the aerial rockslide. And the few that were able to even approach their objective painfully found that the attempt cost them appendages. The signature hum of her alacritous lightsaber noisily rebounded from all the surrounding rock faces as it swept back and forth with the devastating effect of a cleaver caught in a whirlwind. Demorin could hardly believe how much of a massacre his companion was being required to commit in order to stem the determined tide of terror.

But the raucous sound of the confrontation was echoing down the tunnel in both directions, drawing more enemies to the skirmish. Dari's concentration was tested almost beyond measure as she struggled to maintain the airborne avalanche while also intercepting the few Crimpth that managed to breach her ballistic boundary. Demorin began to help by picking up the larger rocks from around his feet and hurling them at the few Crimpth that were managing to evade the ones already in the air. They were thereby able to keep an increasing amount of carnivores at bay for several minutes, but it was becoming clear that the Crimpth would eventually overwhelm them.

As Dari was using the Force to locate more ammunition for ballistic blister, she realized that some of spherical objects on the opposite side of the passageway were not actually rocks at all. They were eggs. As much as the taking of hostages was abhorrent to her, there really was very little choice but to engage in a kind of kidnapping. Using the Force, she gently levitated the eggs to within the range of her lightsaber. The Crimpth immediately arrested their aggressive activity.

"I have no wish to harm your offspring. That is not why we are here. It was only by accident that we entered your domain. But you've left me no other option except to adopt a reprehensible tactic. Unless you want to force me to do something we'll both regret, you will allow us to leave," Dari said to the hesitating horrors. Speaking over her shoulder to Demorin, she said, "You need to get out of here while you can. Hopefully, I'll be fortunate enough to follow you."

The Chancellor's son paused for a second, unwilling to abandon Dari. But he had run out of anything to throw, so there was little he could do to assist her even if he stayed. Sprinting at the wall, he was able to make his way far enough up the embankment to secure a handhold. It took strenuous exertion, and Dari could not help him since her telepathy was already engaged in the suspending of multiple eggs, but he ultimately managed to extricate himself from the crevasse.

Alone with her dreadful adversaries, Dari said, "I need you to disappear down the passage. I don't want any of you close enough to pursue us on the surface. If you'll comply, I promise that none of your offspring will be harmed. Do as I say now. Recede into the shadows."

Jedi are often able to manipulate animals and weak-minded individuals. Dari did not know if the Crimpth somehow comprehended what she was saying or if they were simply responding to her influence over the Force, but they withdrew. Acting almost as a single organism, they turned about and disappeared into the darkness. After carefully setting the eggs on the stony floor, she then used a Force-propelled leap to return to the surface in a single bound. Landing right beside Demorin, she took him by the hand and led the way back toward the landing platform.

"You saved my life," he raggedly said between panting breaths.

"It was my pleasure," she appropriately replied while continuing to urge him forward.

Dari could feel his disquiet slowly easing as he became reacquainted with the feeling of not being in peril of his life. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for so deadly a situation. He was completely out of his comfort zone. Now that the traumatic episode was unexpectedly over, he was overwhelmed by the amount of improbable composure with which his affable escort had met the menace. Combined with the gratitude he felt toward her for saving his life, his emotional state was animated beyond measure.

Just before they emerged from the edge of the forest and out into the meadow within which sat the landing platform, he decidedly pulled her to a stop and insistently asked, "How can I ever repay you?"

"Lifelong friendship should suffice," she grinningly suggested, trying to defuse the emotional intensity of the moment.

"That I will gladly give at the very least," he replied. "But such recompense is incomplete."

"Perhaps some other solution will ultimately suggest itself," she pensively replied, still trying to muster the composure by which he had so recently been impressed. It seemed to her as if his presence was intoxicating. And this was not the first time while in his company that she'd felt the stirring of feelings she thought she had long since suppressed. Frantically resolving not to make a misstep, and then instantly regretting that she had sacrificed an unusual opportunity for further intimacy, she stepped backward into the clearing and drew him with her. But she paused, struck through by his longing gaze, before she finally released his hand.

She was momentarily reminded of the oath that had reportedly been shared between Soma and Lamis. There'd been security recorders on top of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, particularly around the landing pads, but there had been none in the area where the oath was exchanged. It would've never even been known about if Soma hadn't confided the fact to Julither. According to Dari's understanding, however, that oath had to do very specifically with mutual protection. It did not reflect the emotional intensity she was experiencing with Demorin. Also, Chancellor Varnic's son was not Force-sensitive. Unless he was an incredibly accomplished Sith Lord, she would've sensed it. Consequently, there was no way he could secretly be a disciple of the Dark Side. The way she responded to him was in no way associated with any path to destruction. She was sure of this. It was utterly at variance with the commitment to celibacy that was traditionally expected from everyone in the Jedi Order. But she knew there'd been exceptions. The Grand Master was the result of such an exception and was even participating in one herself. And beyond all of that there were suspicions of destiny that seemed intertwined with her feelings for Demorin. Whether this constituted the seeing of shatterpoints she could not be certain, since no one could actually explain what that was supposed to be like.

Turning towards the Forthright, she could see that a group of people were assembled at the other end of the massive spaceship. As she recognized the nimble forms of Cyrella and Zayana, the two Jedi Knights very obviously sensed her proximity. Their motions seemed to indicate that she and Demorin should give the interposing spacecraft a wide berth as they accomplished their approach. Dari was uncertain of what such a warning signified, but she cautiously acquiesced to their counsel.

"We have ray shields set up and droids searching the ship by compartment," Cyrella said to the pair as they were absorbed into the assembly. "Darth Woe was on that ship for a reason. It's possible that he planted some type of explosive device. We are keeping the ship on the surface until we've found it. How did you discover him?"

"I first sensed a disturbance in the Force, and then I noticed that my lightsaber was reacting to something. But the trespasser was initially invisible," Dari answered. However, when she saw how her audience responded to the announcement, she rethought her choice of words and said, "Maybe I should've said he was cloaked. Upon realizing that he'd been discovered, he activated his lightsaber and engaged me in combat. Since he apparently had to dispense with the cloak in order to activate its emanation, I think his lightsaber must somehow have been the source."

"Provided that we still have a ship, I'll look forward to recovering and examining the artifact," Cyrella rejoined. "Perhaps we can learn something useful about his cloaking technology, maybe even a way to detect its operation."

"We'd probably be able to help you with that," Varnic volunteered. Turning then to Demorin, he asked, "Where were you? The Jedi Knights could get no sense of your location."

"It might've had something to do with all the ray shielding on the ship being between us," he answered. "But we were also underground in the old lava tube nearby. I knew we could not stay on the surface with a starship shooting at everything. But I never imagined that the Crimpth had taken up residence and were even nesting in that tunnel. I am only alive because of Dari. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. She took on the whole horde singlehandedly. They were no match for her."

Turning in awed appreciation to the unimposing young woman who was standing beside his son, the Chancellor said, "You've my greatest gratitude. We owe you and your order a life-debt."

"It is not our custom to keep any account of such incidental indebtedness. Our sole purpose is to preserve life. It's not our occupation. We don't do it for any form of remuneration. Instead, it is our mandate," Dari replied with a bow. "If I have earned the friendship of your son, then all my desire has already been bestowed."

"Our master would be so proud of you," Zayana quietly said. "As our opportunity allows, we should make certain to commune with her."

For the Scree, their skill with cybernetics was an offshoot of their competence with robotics. Therefore, they had furnished some of the droids that were tasked with searching the Forthright. They quickly discovered the canister that had been placed inside one of the spaceship's primary air ducts. It was carefully extracted, while still safely secured inside layers of ray shields, and its delivery system was deactivated. An in depth analysis of the canister's mysterious contents was then performed, and the results were reported to Varnic.

"The device contains a particularly potent pathogen," the Chancellor informed the Jedi. "I'm afraid we recognize the signature of the substance with which it has been enhanced. Magistrate Corgus had a team of scientists do a comprehensive analysis of a crystal shard which Umbrage supplied. They discovered that it'd somehow become infused with an organic component, which you would call midi-chlorians."

"What?" Cyrella incredulously asked.

"The accepted theory is that they were drawn into the matrix as the star was collapsing and then became trapped there," Varnic apologetically continued, realizing that he should've shared the information much sooner. "The fact that they are fixed in space, like the singularity of a black hole, might even account for the crystal's ability to move things through time. And the manner in which it came to be is the reason it seems to respond exclusively to what you call the Dark Side of the Force. Its biological component is imprisoned, not the most acceptable of situations."

"So this is the source of the instrumentality that's defied the Jedi for decades," Zayana said. "But why not wait for us to leave and then just destroy the ship? Why make us sick instead?"

"He wasn't just after your ship's compliment," Varnic frowned as he answered. "The delivery device was reading the signal from the starship's transponder. It was programmed to release its payload when you reached the surface of Tatooine. The target was your temple."

"Can I assume that it's now safe for us to reenter the Forthright?" Cyrella tactically inquired, very deliberately changing the topic of the depressing discussion.

"Absolutely," Craydic took the opportunity to reply.

Upon entering through the main airlock, they discovered Julither's vacant raiment stretched upon the deck plate in the place where she'd fallen. After finally succumbing to her fatal injuries, she had transformed into the Force. By contrast, the agonized grimace of Garis remained frozen on his lifeless face. And there on the floor beside him, after slipping from his decrepit grasp, was the lightsaber with which he'd harvested the Jedi Master's soul. All three Jedi Knights paused as they sensed the implausible potency of its Dark Side resonations, but it was Zayana who spoke.

"After the destruction of Kamino, Geonosis, and Hoth; I was given an assignment by Master Julither to write a report on the life of Luke Skywalker," she said. "I'm certain her intention was to help me put his seemingly questionable actions into perspective. Therefore I am familiar with his humble beginnings and all the tragedies he endured on his road to ascension. I'm sure it helped me comprehend the impetus that made him so desperate to defeat Darth Chrysalis, although he had to become a Dark Jedi in order to do it. But while carrying out my research, I obtained some security records from Cloud City on Bespin. I have viewed images that were captured during his duel with Darth Vader, just prior to losing his hand and the heirloom he inherited from his father. This lightsaber is the very same one he lost in that duel, the one that initially belonged to Anakin Skywalker. How it came to be in the keeping of such an evil individual I can't say, but I also can't account for the perception of peril that somehow emanates from within it."

"From the way the Golden Gallantry is reacting," Cyrella surmised, "I'd say it must contain a shard from the One Crystal. That must be what imbues it with its capacity for cloaking."

"I'd be happy to have my people get right on that," Varnic enthusiastically offered. "I'll make certain they do nothing to compromise its operation. I am certain your Grand Master will want to examine it for herself, just as I'm also sure you now need to confer with her. We've been able to keep a channel open to your Jedi Temple on Tatooine. If you have difficulties reaching her from your Forthright, you are welcome to use our subspace communications facility. And with regards to your request to position a subspace relay buoy somewhere in the expanse between our spiral arm and the rest of the galaxy, permission is gladly given. Maybe I should leave you to whatever unfortunate duties your traditions dictate must now follow after such a regrettable loss of life."

"I don't believe you've been to our bridge, and I'm sure the Grand Master will want to speak to you as well," Cyrella cordially disagreed. "We do not mourn those who've transformed into the Force. And our access to those individuals is not negated. It would be of greatest benefit if you'd continue to honor us with your presence."

Before leaving the area in front of the airlock, Zayana paused to pick up Julither's lightsaber and hand it to Dari, saying, "You were her final padawan. Jar'Kai requires a pair of sabers. And the Adjudicator is more like your Violet Vergence. You should become its caretaker."

Along with the Chancellor, Demorin and Craydic had entered the ship with the Jedi Knights. After Cyrella's suggestion had been accepted with a nod, she led the assembly to the starship's bridge. Once there, they had no trouble contacting the temple on Tatooine. Since Leia's delivery of Lucas had already occurred earlier, she was ready to ease back into her obligations. She was already aware that they'd lost Julither. She was obviously troubled to hear that her brother's lost lightsaber had been recovered by a disciple of the Dark Side and then imbued with the capacity to cloak. This news seemed to disturb her almost as much as the discovery that Umbrage's time weapon was biological in nature, which she'd already discerned from Awswi's report. She swiftly determined what needed to be done.

"You should come back by way of Coruscant," she instructed. "Eisley and his security team need to examine the bio-weapon. Priella would probably like to see you, Cyrella, and it would do and your team some good to engage in a little camaraderie after such a disquieting occurrence. Master Awswi had already determined that the Tusken Raiders were killed with a bio-weapon. It remains to be seen, however, what Darth Umbrage will do now that he's lost his apprentice and exposed his secret weapon. Perhaps the discernment of your former master will help us answer that critical question."

Turning again to Varnic after the subspace conference was concluded, Cyrella said, "These are hardly the ideal circumstances in which to take our leave. And we're very grateful for all your hospitality. But it is clear that we must now return to the Republic. Is there anything that remains unresolved, or are you agreeable with our ending of this particular visit?"

Demorin abruptly pulled his father aside, after which Varnic finally replied, "If it's acceptable to you, I'd like to send my son with you. He wishes to learn more about your Republic, and such a loan guarantees that you will indeed be my guests again."

Cocking a crooked smile as she shot a sidelong glance at Dari, Cyrella answered, "It would be our honor to accept responsibility for your son's safety."

After reengaging his spacecraft's cloak, Umbrage abandoned the atmosphere of Brimula. It served no purpose to further strain his already tenuous relationship with the Scree. But he didn't leave their system immediately. For a long time he stood in front of the monitor that continued to display the readout from the probe he'd sent into the future. The neighboring galaxy was staying on its convergent course. There could be no doubt that a collision would ultimately occur. It was inevitable. Despite it being fraught with difficulties, he could not come up with any other solution besides the plan he'd already put in place. But he kept unexpectedly failing to move it forward.

"What are your orders, Lord Umbrage?" M4 ultimately asked after allowing several minutes of respectful silence.

"We will deploy the probe droids," the Sith Lord spat. "That is what we were supposed to be doing before all this nonsense occurred. I don't suppose you have a better suggestion."

The confrontational way in which Darth Umbrage turned to the droid was evidently intended to serve as a dismissal, but the robot surprised him by replying, "If I did, would that qualify me to take the place of your apprentice? Did he not establish his worthiness by suggesting appropriate courses of action? The ship's logs show that Darth Duress had a mechanical trainee. In fact, M3 was able to eliminate one of the Jedi during a lightsaber duel. Maybe it's a result of my interface with the Crystal Matrix, but I find that I also aspire to the position of apprentice. Can I confirm my worth for such advancement in the same manner as Garis Woe?"

"I suppose it's possible," Umbrage slowly responded, completely perplexed to encounter so manipulative an attitude in a robotic being. "What is your suggestion?"

"In so far as I understand it, the primary impediment to your plan is the existence of the Jedi Order," the droid replied. "Since their temple on Tatooine is essentially unassailable, the swiftest way to be rid of them is to somehow prevent that relocation from ever happening. If we could do that, then the battle droids, which you already sent back in time, could destroy their Ziggurat and its occupants. Killing the Grand Master in the past was only one possible solution, and by far the most problematic. In order to achieve the desired objective, it's only necessary to give the Jedi a reason to remain where they were. If something had happened that caused them to believe they would be abandoning people who needed them if they proceeded with their relocation, then they would surely have stayed."

"What exactly are you recommending?" Umbrage pressed, intrigued. "What type of disaster would've made them stay?"

"If somebody had attacked the Galactic Senate and most of the delegates had died of some mysterious epidemic, then I calculate an extremely low likelihood that the Jedi would've left," the automaton answered. "If they'd attempted to move forward with that plan, the primary possibility is that Commissioner Eisley would have asked them to stay. I recommend using the bio-weapon against the Galactic Senate."

"The city shields on Coruscant are in no way inferior to those on Tatooine," he rejoined. "Do you actually expect no complications in carrying out the required incursion?"

"Unlike the temple on Tatooine, there is constant commerce being conducted on Coruscant that necessitates the passage of traffic through those shields," the droid intrepidly replied. "Even if we cannot get the ship through them, your lightsaber makes it possible for you to impersonate anybody. It would just be a simple matter of placing you on a transport ship that's already bound for the Republic's capital. The only complication would involve the quantity of pathogen required for infecting the entire enclosure of the Senate chamber. It seriously exceeds our current supply. We can certainly acquire the growth medium needed to increase the culture. But biology is what it is, and the technology that allows for rapidly aging a clone can't be adapted to this application. In short, we need more of the microscopic weapons and it will take more time to grow them."

"Then we'll proceed with the deployment of the probe droids as soon as we've acquired the necessary growth medium," the Sith Lord declared. "Where precisely do you suggest that we go to get the required material?"

"In order to avoid any type of transaction and the possible exposure of our position, I would recommend that we return to the same place where we got the samples to begin with," the droid responded. "Now that we know which pathogen suits our purpose, we can focus on finding only the type of growth medium that it requires. And the facility where we found them is sure to stock just such a supply."

"So we return to the backwater worlds beyond the Rishi Maze," Umbrage mused aloud. "It's strange that we keep having to go back to a sector of space near Kamino. After all, that's where this entire adventure began. It's where Lamis became a Sith Lord. And it's where Soma died."

It seemed to M4 as if a shadow swept across the face of its malicious master as he said the name of his predecessor's beloved. But the droid couldn't verify the event. It failed to register on any of the onboard scanners. Like its inexplicable aspiration to assume the station formerly held by Darth Woe, it could only postulate that the Crystal Matrix had somehow been the source.

Because the dreadnaught's size exceeded what the docking bays could accommodate, the Forthright landed instead at the airfield that was nearest to the Senate Complex. The three Jedi Knights were accompanied by Ackbar and Demorin as they took a shuttle to the Senate Annex. Master Priella and her padawan were waiting to welcome them. After a brief exchange of cordial greetings, the five visitors were led to the chambers where the two Jedi Masters had established a kind of command center. Master Xan and his padawans had previously rotated off-shift, but all three arose for the occasion.

"I understand that Darth Umbrage no longer has an apprentice," Xan observed, speaking to Cyrella in a seemingly conversational tone. "And we have received reports from the admiral and his crew concerning the way you took command and prevented the destruction of his ship. Your resilience has distinguished you in a way that needs to be acknowledged. Stand forward and be recognized."

Although she was somewhat mystified by Master Xan's instruction, Cyrella dutifully stepped closer to the room's expansive center. This placed her in proximity to the holographic, subspace transceiver that served as its showpiece. It seemed to automatically activate. Framed there, and flanked by Masters Awswi and Gwonameeth, was Grand Master Solo. Lucas was cradled in her arms. The radiance of motherhood was in her smile as she gazed upon Cyrella.

"This is the first time since its reestablishment that the Jedi Order has had an opportunity to afford this illustrious honor to an initiate who rose through our ranks by beginning as a padawan learner," she said. "But we're in full agreement that you merit the advancement. It's therefore my unspeakable pleasure to inform you that you're hereby promoted to the rank of Jedi Master. And may the Force be with you always, Jedi Master Cyrella Lasari."

Being almost emotionally overwhelmed by the unexpected honor, Cyrella robotically bowed in response to the gesture performed by the holographic images before her. Turning to face her friends, she found the formality required again. Priella placed a supportive hand on her previous padawan's shoulder as the new Jedi Master was reabsorbed into the assembly. She then spoke to the holographic images.

"Do we have any insight into what Umbrage will do in the aftermath of his setback?" Priella carefully inquired.

"When Darth Maul was killed, Sidious took a new apprentice," Awswi suggested.

"That apprentice was Count Dooku, previously a Jedi," Xan reminded everyone. "Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself. And I move that we open this discussion to all possible participants. We can't take the chance of excluding any conceivable insights."

As Leia nodded in agreement, Dari took the opportunity to ask, "Is it possible that Umbrage could use his time weapon to try and bring his apprentice back?"

"That would be incredibly complicated, and therefore probably not possible," Priella replied. "He would be required to target our new Jedi Master. But if Cyrella had died before we moved to Tatooine, that might alter many elements of otherwise established history. The outcome couldn't be predicted with any kind of confidence. The Force can help us foresee things, but not when its limits are being deliberately tested. Even Umbrage must know this."

Having been invited earlier, but detained while receiving the report from the security team in orbit that examined the bio-weapon, Commissioner Eisley arrived while Priella was finishing her explanation. He politely waited for her to stop speaking before he addressed the assembly.

"Unfortunately, there're few recommendations that I can make," Eisley remorsefully said as Priella yielded the floor to the newcomer. "But I'd strongly suggest that we adopt a way to speak about this bio-weapon without alarming anyone who might manage to overhear any subsequent conversation. The researchers who just studied the sample quickly took to calling it the quantum retrovirus. We might consider using an acronym of that term. I propose that we call it the QRV."

"What can you tell us about it?" Xan inquired.

"I am forced to rely mostly on the report from Master Awswi, which Grand Master Solo sent to me," Eisley answered. "Our security scientists identified the particularly virulent pathogen. But with regards to its apparent ability to kill someone in the past, we're facing a complete unknown. One scientist suggested testing it on a laboratory animal. But its effectiveness has already been certified. And the ability to transmit things through time didn't seem to me like something that we should be messing around with. I do not want to say that we won't be able to eventually develop an inoculation against infection. But none of the members of the medical team seemed very optimistic about the idea. If there's any breakthrough in that regard, you'll know about it as soon as I do."

"We're back to my original question," Leia observed. "While it can be dangerous to consider the designs of the Dark Side, we can't prepare for Darth Umbrage's next move without just such an insight. Does anyone have anything to offer?"

"I've yet to discern any actual details," Priella reluctantly confessed. "But ever since coming to Coruscant, I've had the impression that our conflict would somehow come to its climax at this location. Perhaps the Sith Lord will now attempt to address the Galactic Senate and make them aware of the coming catastrophe. He could conceivably do that without the support of the Scree. He would have to circumvent the city shields. But since he can apparently impersonate anyone, he could simply use registered transport for the purpose. His ship would not actually be required except for an extraction. And that would only occur if the delegates were to reject his proposal to plan for the impending disaster by reestablishing the empire, and we were able to get the upper hand in the ensuing engagement."

"I've met the man," Demorin interjected. "Statesmanship is not his strong suit. Do you really think he'll approach your Senate singlehandedly like that?"

"As a rule, Sith Lords only negotiate from a position of strength," Cyrella replied. "And such negotiation is only for show. They only present requests for concessions when they can enforce the satisfaction of their terms. They're dependably passive-aggressive in that way. Whatever he does, it will certainly not show weakness. If he truly intends to present a proposal to the Galactic Senate, it will only be in circumstances where he is sure that they will have no option for refusal. And that means eliminating us first."

Grand Master Leia Solo ultimately ended the holoconference and took her leave of Masters Gwonameeth and Awswi. Despite having unexpectedly come into possession of a sample of the Sith Lord's bio-weapon, no tactical advantage had been acquired and their collective insight was also ephemeral. Master Priella's legendary perception had managed to pierce the Shroud of the Dark Side, but she'd been able to do no more than discern the identity of the location where the conflict would climax. She'd glimpsed no indication of what would cause the Republic's capital to become embroiled in their battle. And there was no suggestion whatsoever of the outcome.

Since the newborn required round-the-clock care, she and Han were taking care of Lucas in shifts. Instead of returning to their quarters where she knew her husband was still sleeping, Leia elected to traverse the nearby staircase that connected to the observation deck of the northwest tower. The swaying motion of her ascent had rocked little Lucas to sleep in her arms by the time she reached the landing. After admiring the view for several minutes, she sensed a presence.

Turning cautiously about so as not to wake Lucas, whom she had assumed was still asleep, she discovered two things almost simultaneously. The little boy's eyes were open and obviously aware of the phantasmal figure that was standing behind them. This surprised Leia, since she'd never heard of Force-sensitivity being detected in a newborn baby before. And yet, he was very obviously observing their visitor. The identity of their ghostly guest was also somewhat startling. It was Jedi Master Soma Sarmosini.

"Please don't get the impression that I am not happy to see you," Leia softly said, modifying her tone for the benefit of the baby. "But it was my understanding that you'd probably be unable to appear to me again."

"My circumstances are mercurial," the shimmering specter replied. "Each time the Sith Lord alters the past, my situation changes. Perhaps it is because he has crossed once again through the sector of space where I met my demise, but I have perceived his plan. I know what the clone of Lamis will do. I've come to warn you. Due to the regrettable series of events that placed me in this position, it might be that I'm the only one who can. It seems that I have become an emissary of the Force as it brings itself back into balance. I perceive that my deliverance from this cosmic incarceration may now be at hand."

"You have my complete attention," Grand Master Solo assured her. "What's Darth Umbrage planning to do?"

"He intends to use his bio-weapon against the Galactic Senate," Soma answered. "His idea is as simple as it also is horrific. If most of its delegates had died from an unknown infection that was clearly the work of a weapon back before the temple was moved to Tatooine, you would've never recommended the relocation. The Jedi Order would've remained on Coruscant, where his battle droids could have blown us all to bits. This is his ultimate gambit, and it presents you with the opportunity to arrange a possible ambush."

"Your capacity as a tactician was renowned, and it's something I have missed in our current predicament," Leia replied. "How do you recommend that we proceed?"

"He won't make his move immediately," Soma rejoined. "He needs more of the bio-weapon. In order to obtain the required growth medium, he's returned to the place where he procured the pathogen. Unfortunately, there isn't time to intercept him at its source. It will be weeks before he can cultivate a quantity ample enough for infecting the entire Senate Chamber, which gives you some time to prepare. There're four air intakes atop the Senate Chamber and another on top of the Annex. Not including yourself, you've a total of five Jedi Masters now that my friend, Julither, transformed into the Force and Cyrella has been promoted. That is just enough to defend those intakes."

"I don't know if any of us could actually take on Darth Umbrage alone. Even Masters Seratu and Klimesh together were no match for Lamis, and I'll not risk Jedi Knights in so questionable a campaign," Leia argued.

"Your purpose isn't to defeat him, but simply to keep him distracted," Soma explained. "And remember that the other Jedi Masters can come to the aid of the one he engages. I wish I could tell you which intake he'll use or if he plans to use more than one to release the bio-weapon, but I don't have that information. However, keeping him distracted isn't the trickiest part of the plan."

"Really?" Leia disbelievingly rasped. "And what would that be?"

"You have to allow him to land," Soma softly explained. "In order for anybody to destroy the Crystal Matrix, they'll have to gain access to his ship. The purpose of the ambush is to create an opportunity for someone to do that while he isn't onboard. The obvious choice is Cyrella with her Golden Gallantry, but that puts you somewhere inside the Senate Complex in her stead."

"According to the Scree, his ship is equipped with a substantial assembly of droids from the Kaminoan cloning complex, all of which could have been enhanced in the same way as the one that killed Fazif," Leia painstakingly pointed out. "She'd be required to locate a cloaked ship and then board it without being blown away just like he was. While her skills are certainly significant, that sounds incredibly close to a suicide mission. What makes you think she could succeed?"

"Anakin's lightsaber," Soma simply responded. "By incorporating a shard of the One Crystal into it, Umbrage gave it the capacity to cloak. And unless I miss my guess, I believe it could also be used to detect other devices that have been so equipped, like the Nubian Nadir. It is possible that she'll have to be in uncomfortably close proximity to his ship to detect it, but it won't matter if she is also cloaked. By creating an opportunity for him to land his ship in a predetermined sector of the city, you can define the search grid. Eisley will need to make it look like maintenance was unexpectedly required on one of the city's shield generators in order to bait the trap. And then, it will be up to Cyrella to find the ship and destroy the Crystal Matrix before Umbrage can kill all of you. I don't think hers actually constitutes the possible suicide mission."

"If he manages to deploy his weapon while the Senate is in session, then we will most likely have already been killed by the battle droids he sent into the past," Leia answered, sidestepping the suicidal inference. "Therefore, saving the delegates, which we obviously need to do anyway, could be the same thing as saving ourselves. But I don't suppose your plan makes an allowance for evacuating the Senators and their support staff?"

"The trap has to be baited," Soma icily argued. "This is an all-or-nothing proposition. He will see it as a serendipitous bonus that the Jedi Order has shown up and given him the opportunity to eliminate it in both the present and the past. The possibility of essentially killing the Jedi twice will keep him engaged while Cyrella completes her mission. But his perception is too formidable for you to hope to deceive him with holograms. And an evacuation, no matter how clandestinely done, would result in a level of social stress that would be patently apparent to such a Sith Lord. There is no way to minimize the risk to anyone. I'm sorry. Either he dies, or everyone else does. And if he succeeds in reversing the relocation of the temple, then you will all have probably died long before you could've contacted the Scree. In that case, there'd have been nobody to prevent him from playing them as his pawns and using them to present his galaxy-saving scheme to the remnant of the Republic's government, who by the way would probably be looking for somebody to lead them in the aftermath of the Senate's elimination."

"It sounds as if I'm going to have to get Eisley to play his part without explaining to him how much is really at risk," Leia despondently surmised. "I know he'll insist on evacuating the Senate Chamber if I tell him what's really going on. He's a good friend. I'm not comfortable with keeping him in the dark like that."

"This is why the Jedi Order has always been autonomous in its operations and accountable only to itself," Soma insightfully explained. "And this, as I now understand, is why Grand Master Yoda was so hesitant to place that burden on anybody else's shoulders, preferring to accept the horrible responsibility himself as long as he was still alive. Perhaps when this is all over it will be time for you to pass on the weight of that liability to somebody else."

"Admittedly, I have accepted other responsibilities, which seems to have been the will of the Force," Leia replied. "Maybe by acting according to your counsel, we can resolve the immediate menace. But regarding the danger that now threatens all the galaxy, I can see no resolution. It is almost as if the Force refuses to confirm the coming calamity, although I've seen the scans from the time-shifted probe droid myself."

"By moving things through time," Soma suggested, "Umbrage might've brought many kinds of probabilities into play. Perhaps the resolution exists in an unsuspected juxtaposition."

"I know why I'm so out of sorts, and it has nothing to do with Garis going and getting himself slain," Darth Umbrage announced, looking angrily around at his mechanized crew. "It's been too long since I've killed anyone. We're closing on our target now. When we were here before, there were life signs coming from the far side of the planet. Complete an orbital scan before beginning the landing cycle. Perhaps I have an opportunity to engage in a little deadly dalliance."

The sophisticated scanners of the Nubian Nadir were obediently brought to bear. And to the Sith Lord's sadistic delight, they showed that the life sign signature had expanded since its initial discovery. It now appeared that the incursion was actually a precursor to colonization, instead of simply an opportunistic exploration of the abandoned planet.

"Keep us cloaked and bring us in over the encampment," Umbrage instructed. "Let's take a look at the menu."

It didn't take long for the Sith Lord to identify the kind of life form of which the sizeable party was composed. They were Twi'leks, and they were obviously engaged in conducting a survey of the area in which they had established their occupancy. Darth Umbrage was aware that the Jedi had arranged for the Twi'lek refugees to be transported to Hypori. But these people, he correctly concluded, had not been happy to accept aid from the Jedi since it was Skywalker, a member of their own order, who'd been responsible for the catastrophe that necessitated the evacuation of Ryloth. They had clearly decided to work out their own relocation, and it had placed them within the ravaging reach of the Predator's Prism. The Sith Lord could sense the Dark Side resonating from his lightsaber's crystal as he viewed its eventual victims.

"The Jedi will fail these folk," he said aloud, "just as they failed the Tuskens I already killed. And then they will finally fail to save themselves."

Such wanton carnage had not been committed on an Outer Rim world since Anakin arrived on Mustafar. Prior to that, it was probably during his return to Tatooine. In that previous case, he had also slaughtered Tuskens. Since Darth Umbrage didn't bother to camouflage himself for the occasion, as he had on the Sanctuary Station, the Twi'leks had no idea of the attacker's identity. And they stood no more of a chance against him than a snowball on Hoth had stood against the destruction of its sun. They were mercilessly exterminated.

As he stood beneath the darkening sky, amidst the mounds of the senselessly slain, he saw the jumbled remains of the Rishi Maze rise over the horizon. Being a clone, he was reminded of Kamino and the now-decimated system where his journey to the Dark Side had been innocently initiated by a devoted droid. It seemed to him that he owed much to the automaton. And now he had received an entreaty for apprenticeship from another of the robotic beings, one whose offer of assistance had been accompanied by a plan that held nothing but promise. It had occurred to the Sith Lord that the death of the delegates would create a legislative vacuum, a governmental gap that the reestablishment of his Galactic Empire would very effectively fill. The plan proposed by Garis had offered no such eventual advantage. M4 had cracked the ultimate equation. It was therefore fitting, Darth Umbrage mused, to grant the droid's request. It was almost as if a sort of cycle had just come full circle.

He was not considering the possibility that, since a droid essentially made him, it was by the suggestion of just such a droid that he might also be unmade.

The lab was just how they'd left it. The Twi'leks obviously hadn't visited the facility. Whether what he experienced could really be called mourning is exceedingly doubtful, but this was where Darth Umbrage was the most keenly aware of the absence of his prior apprentice. However, his droids needed no assistance in order to obtain the required growth medium. In fact, although he elected to do so, he didn't even need to leave the Nadir. But having killed the planet's only other biological occupants, he felt as if his physical presence on the surface certified his ownership.

"Once you get the cultures started, how long until harvest?" he inquired of M4 as the droids brought the needed substance onboard.

"It will be at least several weeks," the droid reluctantly replied. But then, as if to mitigate the amount of patience the Sith Lord would have to employ, it continued, "However, if we want to be certain that their deployment is not detected, it could also take us that long to position the probe droids. Since the time-shifting technology can interact with our cloak, we need to be temporarily visible when we release each of them. Since we're dealing with a delay before we can carry out our assault on the Galactic Senate, we have time to wait and make certain we are not observed. Everything will therefore fall into place at once."

"Shrewd observation," Umbrage grinningly rejoined, amused by the droid's obvious attempt to appease its master. "Plot a course to the nearest set of coordinates and take us there. We've got time to do this right. And then, time will have run out for the Republic and the Jedi Order. Of course, much that just happened will be undone. If the battle droids had destroyed the Jedi with no further assistance, I would've probably never returned to the Sanctuary Station and then met Garis Woe. Maybe it'll be as if you have always been my only apprentice. You certainly deserve the distinction far more than he ever did."

"Thank you, Lord Umbrage," the droid droned as it carried out the calculation and activated the hyperdrive.

Despite the dire circumstances, which had to be kept hidden from most of the people at the Republic's capital, the Jedi were welcomed with a spirit of celebration when they finally emerged from their conclave. After all, Xan and Priella had come at their request. And Cyrella, now a Jedi Master, had attained celebrity status by cleansing the commerce center of its robotic infestation. It was actually Eisley who informed all the dignitaries about the Force-sensitive visitors, knowing it would represent a chance to continue with the repair of the once-strained relationship that had resulted from the actions of Luke Skywalker. And without losing face, there was just no way they could avoid having their glorious day with the politicians.

Cyrella, in particular, had mixed feelings about receiving such accolades. Like both Zayana and Dari, she was human. She felt as if they depicted a somewhat slanted representation of the many races of which the Jedi Order was assembled. Since Xan had his padawans had returned to their rooms to rest, it was only the presence of Master Priella and her padawan that emulated the planet's exceedingly diverse population. It was however a kind of homecoming for the young women, each of whom had come from Coruscant. And it also gave the delegates an opportunity to meet Demorin.

Having been raised in the Chancellery and trained in the manners of the court, Varnic's son was the model of diplomacy. But although he was informative about the customs of the Scree, it was clear to the Jedi that he understood the need to refrain from sharing the disturbing details of their ongoing ordeal. He circumspectly made no reference to Umbrage, time-shifting technology, or the QRV. The Jedi were concerned that the question of teleportation would arise. But it would most probably have come from Commissioner Eisley, and he was very deliberately directing the discourse away from any such subject. The meet-and-greet ultimately ended extremely amiably.

Grand Master Solo very wisely waited until the members of her team were all back onboard the Forthright and headed home before briefing them on her conversation with Soma Sarmosini. Everybody agreed that Eisley almost certainly would've taken exception to the late Jedi Master's suggested scheme. Even among the assembled operatives, there was some opposition. Cyrella was obviously taken aback by her importance in the plan.

"My ability to locate a cloaked ship is completely hypothetical," she carefully commented. "If it's even possible to use Garis Woe's lightsaber in such a way, we'd still have to first confirm that the Nadir had landed. I'm not sure how we'd do that. And timing is critical. If I am unable to even start my search until Umbrage engages the Jedi Masters at the Senate Complex, lives could be lost. And if he manages to deploy the QRV before I destroy the Crystal Matrix, it's game over."

"We don't have an exact figure on how soon he'll be ready to make his move," Leia replied. "But Soma was able to give me an estimate. The Galactic Senate will retire for their long recess only about a week later. We'll arrange it so that the interruption of the shield begins early on the last day of their session. We will also make sure that the maintenance information is leaked in a subspace transmission. We'll thereby give Umbrage a very narrow window in which to make his move. The parameters of your search will therefore be defined in both space and time."

"I wish I could say the risk is unwarranted," Ackbar added. "But as a tactician, it is my job to make such difficult determinations. The enemy must be stopped. Given his formidability and the power of his time-altering weapon, we can only hope to do that by creating such an opportunity. If we can't manipulate him into acting at a time of our choosing, our chances of success become nearly nonexistent. The risk is therefore warranted. We must consider any losses as acceptable. That's how a defensive war is waged."

The admiral's appraisal was certified by his experience as a soldier. He'd come through too many campaigns for his words not to have weight. Time after time across the millennia, the Jedi had been required to take actions without any certainty of the outcome, doing what they did only because they knew it to be right. It had been this way when Yoda confronted the Emperor, when Obi-Wan confronted Anakin, and when Luke tried to bring Darth Vader back from the Dark Side. In every aforementioned situation, the actual outcome was not what had been anticipated by the respective Jedi. But because the actions were rightfully taken, as an aftereffect of each incident, the Force was brought back into balance. Each member of the Jedi Order understood this to be true.

Steadfastly meeting the gaze of the Grand Master, Master Cyrella enunciated each word as she said, "I will do what I must."

After concluding her conversation with the envoy onboard the Forthright, Leia established a secure connection to the team on Coruscant. After she explained the situation to them, Xan and Priella seemed resigned to the necessity of Soma's suggested scheme. At that point, there was only one person left for her to tell. But that was her husband. Han was quick to take exception to the idea.

"You're going up against this guy?" he disappointedly demanded. "And you might even face him singlehandedly?"

"It's impossible to tell which of us will be the first to face him," Leia softly responded. "But as soon as he is encountered, the rest of us will swiftly come to the assistance of whoever it is."

"This Darth Umbrage sounds like the lylek of Sith Lords," Han retorted. "Someone could fall before reinforcements arrive. There's a one in five chance that it could be you."

"I seem to recall that you don't like being told the odds," Leia playfully replied, attempting to insert some humor into their increasingly uncomfortable conversation. But when it clearly did not work, she added, "My brother went up against the Emperor and Vader at the same time, and yet he walked away."

"As I understand it, that's only because somebody died in his place," Han argued. "And that isn't what happened when he decided to face Darth Chrysalis. In fact, he didn't even kill that Sith Lord. I did."

Leia had become momentarily distracted. As Han was forcing her to consider the possibility of leaving Lucas without a mother, she glanced over at his crib. She was almost mesmerized by the slowly spinning motion of the mobile that hung over it, but then she realized something. The room in which it sat had a single ventilation duct. Being late evening, it was one of the few times during a Tatooine day that the outside temperature was ideal for the temple's occupants and the environmental control system rested. She could hear that the blower wasn't running. There were no air currents to account for the mobile's movements. The only explanation was supernatural.

"What?" she asked in sudden surprise as Han's statement set in.

"Okay, he probably would have died since he had been spewed out into space by explosive decompression," Han admitted. "But he flew out right in front of the Falcon and I finished him off with its turbo lasers. However, I'm afraid we'd already lost Luke. And that's my point."

"I've always assumed that your miraculous emergence from so many close scrapes was the result of skill and incredibly good fortune," Leia rejoined. "But that certainly does not explain how you just happened to be in precisely the right place to kill Chrysalis. Tell me, Han, have you ever actually been tested for Force-sensitivity?"

"Why would I do that?" he incredulously asked.

"Because our son is moving that mobile with his mind," Leia replied, pointing.
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