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Anakin is dead. Jacen is gone.
These thoughts resounded through Jaina Solo's benumbed senses, echoing through an inner silence as profound as that of the watchful stars.
These thoughts drowned out the sounds of battle, and the frantic, running commentary of the seven young Jedi who struggled to fly the stolen Yuuzhan Vong ship. Like her companions, Jaina was battered and filthy from days of captivity, and from a battle that had lasted too long and cost too much.
Only eight Jedi had fought their way out of the world-ship and onto this smaller ship, bringing with them the body of their young leader. The survivors had taken the
Yuuzhan Vong frigate analog quickly, with astonishing ease. Jaina had a dim recollection of searing anger and killing light, of her friend Zekk pushing her away from the pilot's seat and into the Yuuzhan Vong equivalent of a gunner's chair. She perched there now on the edge of the too-large seat, firing missiles of molten rock at the coralskippers pursuing the Jedi and their stolen ship.
Jaina watched with a strange sense of detachment as the alien ship released plasma at her command, as the death of coralskippers and their Yuuzhan Vong pilots was painted in brief, brilliant splashes against the dark canvas of space. All of this was a fever dream, nothing more, and Jaina was merely a character caught in her own nightmare.
Jacen is gone.
It didn't seem possible. It wasn't possible. Jacen was alive. He had to be. How could she be alive if Jacen was not? Her twin brother had been a part of her, and she of him, since before their birth. What they were could not be separated from what they were to each other.
Her thoughts tumbled like an X-wing in an out-of-control spiral. Jaina's pilot instincts kicked in, and she eased herself out of the spin.
Reaching out through the Force, she strained beyond the boundaries of her power and training as she sought her brother. Where Jacen had been was only blackness,
as unfathomable as space. She went deep within, frantically seeking the place within her that had always been
Jacen's. That, too, was veiled.
Jacen was gone. Jaina did not feel bereft, but sundered.
A burst of plasma flared toward the stolen ship. Jaina responded with one of her own. It streamed toward the incoming plasma bolt like a vengeful comet. The two missiles met in a tidal wave.
Zekk threw himself to one side, straining the umbilicals on the pilot's gloves in his attempt to pull the ship aside from the killing spray.
Fortunately for the Jedi, their Yuuzhan Vong pursuers were also forced to turn aside. This bought them a moment of relative peace--no immediate danger, no obvious target.
Jaina twisted in her seat until she could see the world-ship where Anakin had fallen, where Jacen had been abandoned. It seemed odd, and somehow wrong, that such a terrible place could be reduced to a small lump of black coral.
"We'll be back, Jacen," she promised. "You hold on,
and we'll come for you."
I'll come for you, she added silently. She would go after Jacen alone, if it came down to that, as Anakin had gone to Yavin 4 to rescue Tahiri.
Now Anakin was dead, and a battered and heart-broken
Tahiri watched over his body. The small blond girl blazed in the Force like a nova--Jaina couldn't help but feel her anguish. The severed bond was different from that shared by twins, but perhaps no less intense.
The realization hit her like a thud bug. Anakin and
Tahiri. How strange--and yet it felt right and perfect.
Tears filled Jaina's eyes, refracting an incoming streak of molten gold into lethal rainbows. In the pilot's seat,
Zekk muttered a curse and wrenched the frigate's nose up and hard to port. The alien ship rose in a sharp, gut-
wrenching arc. Plasma scorched along the frigate's underside,
sheering off the irregular coral nodules with a shrill, ululating screech.
Jaina jerked her left hand from its living glove and fisted away her tears through the cognition hood that covered her face. Meanwhile the fingers of her right hand slid and circled as she deftly brought her target into focus. She jammed her left hand back into the glove and squeezed it into a fist, releasing a burst of plasma at the attacking coralskipper--an instant before it launched a second plasma.
Jaina's missile struck the Yuuzhan Vong ship in that minuscule interval between shielding and attack. Shards of black coral exploded from its hull, and the snout heated to an ominous red as molten rock washed over it. Cracks fissured through the Yuuzhan Vong pilot's viewport.
Again Jaina fired, and again, timing the attacks with skill honed through two long years and too many missions.
The coralskipper's projected gravity well swallowed the first missile; the second proved to be too much for the severely compromised hull. The ship broke apart,
spilling its life out into the emptiness of space.
"I know that feeling," Jaina muttered.
A small, strong hand settled on her shoulder. She felt
Tenel Ka's solid presence through the Force--there, but profoundly different. A moment passed before Jaina realized why: her friend's emotions, usually as straight-forward and unambiguous as a drawn blaster, had been carefully shielded.
"We are doing the right thing for Jacen," Tenel Ka said stoutly. "Because they have only one twin, they will harm neither. We suspected as much, but now we have proof.
They are not trying to destroy this ship."
"Couldn't prove it by me," Zekk muttered as he jinked sharply to avoid another plasma blast.
"Fact," the warrior woman said bluntly. "Zekk, for two years you've flown cargo ships--a true contribution,
but poor training for this escape."
"Yeah? Here's another fact: I haven't gotten us killed yet."
"And here are several more," Tenel Ka retorted.
"Jaina was in Rogue Squadron. She had access to New
Republic intelligence on enemy ships. She has survived more dogfights than anyone here. If we are to survive,
you must let her fly."
Zekk started to protest, but another barrage cut him off. He zigzagged wildly to avoid incoming fire and then put the ship into a tumbling evasive dive. The force threw Tenel Ka into the seat behind the pilot. She muttered something in her native language as she struggled into the restraining loops.
Jaina braced her feet against the irregular coral floor and steeled herself for the punishing buildup of g-force.
She expected her cognition hood to bulge out like the jowls of a Dagobian swamp lizard, but it remained comfortably in place. She filed the data away for future use.
In any New Republic ship, this maneuver would have been punishing; apparently, the internal gravity of a Yuuzhan
Vong ship was far more complex and adaptable.
Even so, for several moments speech was impossible.
Jaina quickly ran through the list of survivors as she considered Tenel Ka's words. Nine Jedi remained, just one more than half of their original strike force. Tahiri was only fifteen, and no pilot. She had been terribly wounded in body and spirit, and Tekli, the Chadra-Fan healer, was busy attending her. The reptilian Tesar, the sole survivor of the Barabel hatchmates, was working the shielding station in the stern. Lowbacca was needed everywhere,
and since their escape he'd been dashing about patching the living ship's wounds. When his efforts fell short, he'd alternately cajoled and threatened the ship in Wookiee terms so vivid that Em Teedee, the lost translator droid,
would have been hard-pressed to come up with genteel euphemisms.
That left Tenel Ka, Alema Rar, and Ganner Rhysode.
Jaina quickly dismissed Tenel Ka. Yuuzhan Yong ships were not designed with one-armed pilots in mind. Forget
Alema. The Twi'lek female was emotionally fragile--
Jaina could feel her teetering on the edge of mindless,
vengeful frenzy. Put Alema in the pilot's seat, and she'd likely plot a suicidal plunge directly at the worldship's dovin basal. Ganner was a powerful Jedi, an impressive-
looking man whose role in this mission had been to serve as decoy for the real leader--Anakin. Ganner had his points, but he wasn't enough of a pilot to get them out of this.
Tenel Ka was right, Jaina concluded. Anakin had died saving the Jedi from the deadly voxyn. He'd left his last mission in Jacen's hands, not hers, but she was the one left to see it through. The Jedi--at least the Jedi on this ship--were now her responsibility.
A small voice nudged into Jaina's consciousness,
barely audible over the screaming dive and the thrum and groan of the abused ship. In some dim corner of her mind huddled a small figure, weeping in anguish and indecision. Jaina slammed the door and silenced her broken heart.
"I need Ganner to take over for me," she said as soon as she could speak.
A look of concern crossed Tenel Ka's face, but she shrugged off her restraints and rose. In moments she re-
turned with the older Jedi.
"Someone has to take my place at gunner," Jaina explained.
She stood up without removing either the gloves or hood. "No time for a learning curve--better work with me until you get the feel of it. The seat's big enough for both of us."
After a brief hesitation, Ganner slipped into the chair.
Jaina quickly settled into his lap.
He chuckled and linked his hands around her waist.
"This could get to be a habit."
"Hold that thought," Jaina told him as she sighted down an incoming skip. "It'll keep your hands busy."
A surge of annoyance came from Zekk, but Jaina understood Ganner's flirtation for what it was. Ganner was big, jet-black-haired, and so absurdly handsome that he reminded Jaina of the old holovids of Prince Isolder.
The scar across one cheek only served to heighten the overall effect. When Ganner turned on the charm, his pheromone count probably rivaled a Falleen's, but Jaina knew a shield when she saw one. Not long ago, Jacen had disguised his thoughtful nature with labored jokes. Perhaps it was best to leave Ganner's defenses safely intact.
"Put your hands in the gloves and rest your fingers on mine," she directed.
As Ganner wriggled his hands into the flexible gloves,
Jaina reached out for him through the Force. She lacked
Jacen's empathy, but could convey images to Ganner using her own force talent.
As she aimed and fired, she formed mental pictures of what she saw--the battle as viewed through the greatly expanded vision granted by the cognition hood, the blurry concentric circles that made up the targeting device.
Through the Force she felt the grim intensity of
Ganner's concentration, sensed a mind and will as focused as a laser. Soon his fingers began moving with hers in a precise duet. When she thought him ready, she slid her hands free, then tugged off the hood as she eased out of his lap. She pulled the hood down over Ganner's head.
The Jedi jolted as he made direct connection with the ship. He quickly collected himself and sent plasma hurtling to meet an incoming ball. The two missiles col-
lided,sending molten rock splashing into space like festival fireworks.
Ganner's crow of triumph was swallowed by the ship's groan and shudder. Several bits of molten stone had splashed the frigate despite its shielding singularity and
Zekk's attempts at evasion.
"Tenel Ka is right," Jaina said. "Let me have her, Zekk."
The pilot shook his hooded head and put the ship into a rising turn. "Forget it. You're in no condition for this."
She planted her fists on her hips. "Yeah? Everyone here could use a few days in a bacta tank, you included."
"That's not what I meant. No one could be expected to fly after losing . . . after what happened down there,"
he concluded lamely.
Silence hung between them, heavy with loss and pain and raw, too-vivid memories.
Then Jaina caught a glimpse of the memory that most disturbed Zekk--an image of a small, disheveled young woman in tattered jumpsuit, hurling lightning at a Yuuzhan
Vong warrior. A moment passed before Jaina recognized the furious, vengeful, bloodstained face as her own.
Suddenly she knew the truth of her old friend's concern.
Zekk, who had trained at the Shadow Academy and experienced the dark side firsthand, was as wary of it as Jacen had been. In taking the pilot's chair, Zekk hadn't been considering her loss, her state of mind. He simply didn't trust her.
Jaina braced herself for the pain of this new betrayal,
but none came. Perhaps losing Jacen had pushed her to some place beyond pain.
She brought to mind an image of the molten lightning that had come so instinctively to her call. She imbued it with so much power that the air nearly hummed with energy,
and the metallic scent of a thunderstorm seemed to lurk on the edge of sensory perception. She projected this image to her old friend as forcefully as she could.
"Get out of the seat, Zekk," she said in cool, controlled tones. "I don't want to fry the controls."
He hesitated for only a moment, then he ripped off the hood and rose. His green eyes met hers, filled with such a turmoil of sorrow and concern that Jaina slammed shut the Force connection between them. She knew that expression--she'd seen it in her mother's eyes many times during the terrible months that followed Chewbacca's death, when her father had been lost in grief and guilt.
No time for this now.
Jaina slid into the pilot's seat and let herself join with the ship. Her fingers moved deftly over the organic console,
confirming the sensory impulses that flowed to her through the hood. Yes, this was the hyperdrive analog.
Here was the forward shield. The navigation center remained a mystery to her, but during their captivity Low-bacca had tinkered a bit with one of the worldship's neural centers. The young Wookiee had a history of taking on impossible challenges, and this task lay right along his plotted coordinates.
Suddenly the shriek of warning sensors seared through
Jaina's mind. A chorus of wordless voices came at her from all over the ship.
The details of their situation engulfed her in a single swift flood. Several plasma bolts streamed toward them,
converging on the underside of the ship--so far, the favored target. Coralskippers had moved into position aft and above, and others were closing in from below and on either side. Another ship came straight on, still at a distance but closing fast.
No matter what she did, they could not evade the disabling barrage.