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Authors: John Jackson Miller

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“As I said,” Flen added, “we came for a trade. Your lightsaber, please.”

Ori threw the scrolls to the dirt. “You’ll have to take it!”

He simply crossed his arms. “Your mother told us that you would cooperate. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be the cause of her suffering.”

“She’s suffering already!” She took another step toward them.

“And then our Sabers will come down here in force and raze this little farm.
And
that farmer boy of yours,” he said, eyes glinting evilly. “They already have orders to do so, if I don’t bring back your lightsaber.”

Ori froze. Suddenly reminded, she looked frantically toward the river. He would be floating home soon.

Flen spoke in a knowing voice. “We don’t care what a slave does, or who she does it with. But you’re not a slave
until we have that weapon.” The brothers ignited their lightsabers in unison. “So what’s it going to be?”

Ori closed her eyes. She didn’t deserve what had happened to her, but he didn’t deserve any of it. And he was all she had.

Pressing the button, she deactivated the lightsaber and threw it to the ground.

“Right call,” Sawj Luzo said, deactivating his lightsaber and taking hers. Both brothers stepped back to their mounts and climbed aboard.

“Oh,” Flen said, reaching for something strapped to his uvak’s harness. “We did have a gift from the Grand Lord—to start your new career.” He threw the long object, which landed at Ori’s feet with a thump.

It was a shovel.

Its metal blade made it truly a treasure: she could see it was forged from one of the few bits of debris from
Omen
’s landing. That material had been worked and reworked over the centuries, as Kesh’s paucity of surface iron had become known. A final reward for her former life. Shovel in her hands, she heard the Luzos laughing as they soared away to the north.

Ori looked around at what she had left. The hut. The barn. Mound after mound of the man’s mud. And the trellises, home to the dalsas that had brought her here to begin with …

“NO!”

Anger boiling inside her, she lashed out, striking the frail structures with the shovel. One mighty swing tore the frame apart, sending the flowers crashing to the ground. The hejarbo-shoot wreckage exploded, blown to splinters by the force of her mind.

Infuriated, she charged through the farm, hacking Jelph’s wobbly cart to pieces. So much anger, so little to destroy. Turning, she saw the symbol for her dispossession: the composting barn. Swinging, she smashed the
door from its hinges and charged inside. Raging through the Force, she yanked at the sorry tools on the walls, sending them flying in a whirlwind of hate. And there was that mound of manure, large and noxious. Twirling, she brought the blade of the shovel down onto it …

Clang!
Striking something beneath the surface of the dung, the shovel ripped free from her hands, causing her to lose her footing in the muck.

Calming as she got to her feet, Ori looked in amazement at the pile. There, beneath the stinking mess, was a soiled cloth covering protecting something large.

Something metal.

Recovering the shovel, she began to dig.

He had felt terrible, leaving Ori with a job that would take her all day. But he had his own trap to check, here under the lush canopy. Jelph hadn’t caught anything in months, but his best chances always seemed to coincide with the auroras.

Approaching the secluded knoll, he found his treasure, hidden beneath the giant fronds. He breathed faster in anticipation. All through the recent days of turbulence and tranquillity, he’d felt somehow that something was about to happen. This might be the day he’d been waiting for, after so much time …

Jelph stopped. Something was happening, but it wasn’t here. Looking through the foliage to the west, he had that gut feeling again. Something
was
happening, and it was happening now.

He ran for the boat.

Ori found the strange thing sitting beneath the manure-covered tarp. There actually wasn’t that much of the foul stuff piled over it; just enough to give the appearance that what lay beneath was something other than it was.

And what it was, was big—easily the length of two
uvak. A great metal knife, painted red and silver, with a strange black bubble sitting atop its rear. Protrusions swept back, winglike, in a chevron, each tipped with two long spears that reminded her of lightsabers.

She’d forgotten the smell, now, breathing faster as she ran her hand across the surface of the metal mystery. It was cold and imperfect, with dents and burn marks all along its length. But the true surprise yet awaited her. Reaching the rounded section in back, she pressed her face against what seemed like black glass. Inside, tucked into an amazingly small space, she saw a chair. An engraved plate sat just behind the headrest, bearing characters looking similar to the ones she’d been taught by her mentors:

Aurek-class Tactical Strikefighter
Republic Fleet Systems
Model X4A—Production Run 35-C

Ori’s eyes widened. She saw it for what it was.
A way back in
.

All his life, Jelph Marrian had feared the Sith. The Great Sith War had concluded before he was born, but the devastation done to his homeworld of Toprawa was so complete that he had devoted his life to preventing their return.

He had gone too far, alienating the conservative leaders who ran the Jedi Order. Expelled, he had sought to continue his vigil, working with an underground movement of Jedi Knights devoted to preventing the return of the Sith. For four years, he’d worked in the shadows of the galaxy, making sure the masters of evil were indeed a memory.

Things had gone wrong again. On assignment in a remote region three years earlier, he’d learned of the collapse
of the Jedi Covenant. Fearful of returning, he’d headed for the uncharted regions, sure that nothing could ever restore his name and place with the Order.

On Kesh, he had found something that might—wrapped up in his worst nightmare come true. He’d been caught in one of Kesh’s colossal meteor showers, crashing in the remote jungle as just one more falling star. Unable to raise help through Kesh’s bizarre magnetic field, he’d ventured down toward the lights he’d seen on the horizon.

The light of a civilization, steeped in darkness.

Still meters from the bank, he leapt from the boat. “Ori! Ori, I’m back! Are you—”

Jelph stopped when he saw the trellises, cut down. Taking in the damage, he dashed toward the barn.

The door was open. There, exposed in the evening twilight, sat the damaged starfighter he’d painstakingly floated down from the jungle, a piece at a time. He found something else, beside it: a metal shovel, discarded. “Ori?”

Stepping into the shadows of the barn, he saw the corpse of the uvak, food for the small carrion birds. Behind the building, he found the traps he’d sent her to check, abandoned on the ground. She had been here—and gone.

In front of the hut, he found other tracks. Wide Sith boots and more uvak prints. Ori’s smaller prints were here, too, heading past the hedge up the cart path that led to Tahv.

Jelph reached inside his vest for the bundle he always carried on trips. Blue light flashed in his hand. He was a lone Jedi on an entire planet full of Sith. His existence threatened them—but their existence threatened everything. He had to stop her.

No matter what.

He dashed up the path into the darkness.

Read on for an excerpt from
Star Wars:
Fate of the Jedi:
Vortex
by Troy Denning

Published by Del Rey Books

B
EYOND THE FORWARD VIEWPORT HUNG THE GOSSAMER VEIL
of Ashteri’s Cloud, a vast drift of ionized tuderium gas floating along one edge of the Kessel Sector. Speckled with the blue halos of a thousand distant suns, its milky filaments were a sure sign that the
Rockhound
had finally escaped the sunless gloom of the Deep Maw. And, after the jaw-clenching horror of jumping blind through a labyrinth of uncharted hyperspace lanes and hungry black holes, even that pale light was a welcome relief to Jaina Solo.

Or, rather, it
would
have been, had the cloud been in the right place.

The
Rockhound
was bound for Coruscant, not Kessel, and
that
meant Ashteri’s Cloud should have been forty degrees to port as they exited the Maw. It
should
have been a barely discernible smudge of light, shifted so far into the red that it looked like a tiny flicker of flame. Jaina could not quite grasp how they had gone astray.

She glanced over at the pilot’s station—a mobile levchair surrounded by brass control panels and drop-down display screens—but found no answers in Lando Calrissian’s furrowed brow. Dressed immaculately in a white shimmersilk tunic and lavender trousers, he was
perched on the edge of his huge nerf-leather seat, with his chin propped on his knuckles and his gaze fixed on the alabaster radiance outside.

In the three decades Jaina had known Lando, it was one of the rare moments when his life of long-odds gambles and all-or-nothing stakes actually seemed to have taken a toll on his con-artist good looks. It was also a testament to the strain and fear of the past few days—and, perhaps, to the hectic pace. Lando was as impeccably groomed as always, but even he had not found time to touch up the dye that kept his mustache and curly hair their usual deep, rich black.

After a few moments, Lando finally sighed and leaned back into his chair. “Go ahead, say it.”

“Say what?” Jaina asked, wondering exactly what Lando expected her to say. After all,
he
was the one who had made the bad jump. “It’s not my fault?”

A glimmer of irritation shot through Lando’s weary eyes, but then he seemed to realize Jaina was only trying to lighten the mood. He chuckled and flashed her one of his nova-bright grins. “You’re as bad as your old man. Can’t you see this is no time to joke?”

Jaina cocked a brow. “So you
didn’t
decide to swing past Kessel to say hello to the wife and son?”

“Good idea,” Lando said, shaking his head. “But … 
no
.”

“Well, then …” Jaina activated the auxiliary pilot’s station and waited as the long-range sensors spooled up. An old asteroid tug designed to be controlled by a single operator and a huge robotic crew, the
Rockhound
had no true copilot’s station, and
that
meant the wait was going to be longer than Jaina would have liked. “What are we doing here?”

Lando’s expression grew serious. “Good question.” He turned toward the back of the
Rockhound
’s spacious flight deck, where the vessel’s ancient bridge-droid
stood in front of an equally ancient navigation computer. A Cybot Galactica model RN8, the droid had a transparent head globe, currently filled with the floating twinkles of a central processing unit running at high speed. Also inside the globe were three sapphire-blue photoreceptors, spaced at even intervals to give her full-perimeter vision. Her bronze body-casing was etched with constellations, comets, and other celestial artwork worthy of her nickname. “I
know
I told Ornate to set a course for Coruscant.”

RN8’s head globe spun just enough to fix one of her photoreceptors on Lando’s face. “Yes, you did.” Her voice was silky, deep, and chiding. “And then you countermanded that order with one directing us to our current destination.”

Lando scowled. “You need to do a better job maintaining your auditory systems,” he said. “You’re hearing things.”

The twinkles inside RN8’s head globe dimmed as she redirected power to her diagnostic systems. Jaina turned her own attention back to the auxiliary display and saw that the long-range sensors had finally come on line. Unfortunately, they were no help. The only thing that had changed inside its bronze frame was the color of the screen and a single symbol denoting the
Rockhound
’s own location in the exact center.

RN8’s silky voice sounded from the back of the flight deck. “My auditory sensors are in optimal condition, Captain—as are my data storage and retrieval systems.” Her words began to roll across the deck in a very familiar male baritone. “Redi
rect
to
dest
ina
tion
Ashteri’s Cloud, arri
val
time seven
teen
hours fif
teen
,
Galac
tic
Stan
dard.”

Lando’s jaw dropped, and he sputtered, “Tha … that’s not
me
!”

“Not quite,” Jaina agreed. The emphasis was placed
on the wrong syllable in several words; otherwise, the voice was identical. “But it’s close enough to fool a droid.”

Lando’s eyes clouded with confusion. “Are you telling me what I
think
you’re telling me?”

“Yes,” Jaina said, glancing at her blank sensor display. “I don’t quite know how, but someone impersonated you.”

“Through the Force?”

Jaina shrugged and shot a meaningful glance toward a dark corner. While she knew of a half-dozen Force powers that could have been used to defeat Ornate’s voice-recognition software, not one of those techniques had a range measured in light-years. She carefully began to expand her Force-awareness, concentrating on the remote corners of the huge ship, and, thirty seconds later, was astonished to find nothing unusual. There were no lurking beings, no blank zones that might suggest an artificial void in the Force, not even any small vermin that might be a Force-wielder disguising his presence.

After a moment, she turned back to Lando. “They
must
be using the Force. There’s no one aboard but us and the droids.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” Lando paused for a moment, then asked, “Luke’s friends?”

“I hate to jump to conclusions, but … who else?” Jaina replied. “First, Lost Tribe or not, they’re
Sith
. Second, they already tried to double-cross us once.”

“Which makes them as crazy as a rancor on the dancing deck,” Lando said. “Abeloth was locked in a
black hole prison
for twenty-five thousand years. What kind of maniacs would think it was a good idea to bust her out?”

“They’re
Sith
,” Jaina reminded him. “All that matters to them is power, and Abeloth had power like a nova has light—until Luke killed her.”

Lando frowned in thought. “And if they’re crazy enough to think they could take Abeloth home with them, they’re probably crazy enough to think they could take the guy who killed her.”

“Exactly,” Jaina said. “Until a few weeks ago, no one even knew the Lost Tribe
existed
. That’s changed, but they’ll still want to keep what they can secret.”

“So they’ll try to take out Luke and Ben,” Lando agreed. “And us, too. Contain the leak.”

“That’s my guess,” Jaina said. “Sith like secrecy, and secrecy means stopping us
now
. Once we’re out of the Maw, they’ll expect us to access the HoloNet and report.”

Lando looked up and exhaled in frustration. “I
told
Luke he couldn’t trust anyone who puts
High Lord
before his name.” He had been even more forceful than Jaina in trying to argue Luke out of a second bargain with the Lost Tribe—a bargain that had left the Skywalkers and three Sith behind to explore Abeloth’s savage homeworld together. “Maybe we should go back.”

Jaina thought for only an instant, then shook her head. “No, Luke knew the bargain wouldn’t last when he agreed to it,” she said. “Sarasu Taalon has already betrayed his word once.”

Lando scowled. “That doesn’t mean Luke and Ben are safe.”

“No,” Jaina agreed. “But it
does
mean he’s risking their lives to increase
our
chances of reporting to the Jedi Council.
That’s
our mission.”

“Technically, Luke doesn’t get to assign missions right now,” Lando pressed. “You wouldn’t be violating orders if we—”

“Luke Skywalker is still the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy. I think we should assume he has a plan,” Jaina said. A sudden tingle of danger sense raced down her spine, prompting her to hit the quick-release on her
crash harness. “Besides, we need to start worrying about saving our own skins.”

Lando began to look worried. “What are you saying?” he asked. “That you’re sensing something?”

Jaina shook her head. “Not yet.” She rose. “But I
will
be. Why do you suppose they sent us someplace easy to find?”

Lando scowled. “Oh …” He glanced up at a display, tapped some keys—no doubt trying to call up a tactical report—then slammed his fist against the edge of the brass console. “Are they jamming us?”

“That’s difficult to know with the ship’s sensor systems offline for degaussing,” RN8 replied.

“Offline?”
Lando shrieked. “Who authorized
that
?”


You
did, ninety-seven seconds ago,” RN8 replied. “Would you like me to play it back?”

“No! Countermand it and bring all systems back up.” Lando turned to Jaina and asked, “Any feel for how long we have until the shooting starts?”

Jaina closed her eyes and opened herself to the Force. A shiver of danger sense raced down her spine, and then she felt a mass of belligerent presences approaching from the direction of the Maw. She turned to RN8.

“How long until the sensor systems reboot?”

“Approximately three minutes and fifty-seven seconds,” the droid reported. “I’m afraid Captain Calrissian also ordered a complete data consolidation.”

Jaina winced and turned back to Lando. “In that case, I’d say we have less than three minutes and fifty-two seconds. There’s someone hostile coming up behind us.” She started toward the hatchway at the back of the cavernous bridge, her boots ringing on the old durasteel deck. “Why don’t you see if you can put a stop to those false orders?”

“Sure, I’ll just tell my crew to stop listening to me.” Lando’s voice was sarcastic. “Being droids, they’ll know what I mean.”

“You might try activating their standard verification routines,” Jaina suggested.

“I
might
, if droid crews this old
had
standard verification routines.” Lando turned and scowled at Jaina as she continued across the deck. “And you’re going
where
?”

“You know where,” Jaina said.

“To your StealthX?” Lando replied. “The one with only three engines? The one that lost its targeting array?”

“Yeah, that one,” Jaina confirmed. “We need a set of eyes out there—and someone to fly cover.”

“No way,” Lando said. “If I let you go out to fight Sith in that thing, your dad will be feeding pieces of me to Amelia’s nexu for the next ten years.”

Jaina stopped and turned toward him, propping one hand on her hip. “Lando, did you just say ‘
let
?’ Did you really say ‘no
way’
to me?”

Lando rolled his eyes, unintimidated. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. But have you gone spacesick? With only three engines, that starfighter is going to be about as maneuverable as an escape pod!”

“Maybe, but it still beats sitting around like a blind bantha in this thing. Thanks for worrying, though.” She shot Lando a sour smile. “It’s so sweet when you old guys do that.”

“Old?” Lando cried. After a moment, he seemed to recognize the mocking tone in Jaina’s voice, and his chin dropped. “I deserved that, didn’t I?”

“You
think
?” Jaina laughed to show there were no hard feelings, then added, “And you know what Tendra would do to
me
if I came back without Chance’s father. So let’s
both
be careful.”

“Okay, deal.” Lando waved her toward the hatchway. “Go. Blow things up. Have fun.”

“Thanks.” Jaina’s tone grew more serious, and she
added, “And I mean for
everything
, Lando. You didn’t have to be here, and I’m grateful for the risks you’re taking to help us. It means a lot to me—and to the whole Order.”

Lando’s Force-aura grew cold, and he looked away in sudden discomfort. “Jaina, is there something you’re not telling me?”

“About this situation?” Jaina asked, frowning at his strange reaction. “I don’t think so. Why?”

Lando exhaled in relief. “Jaina, my dear, perhaps no one has mentioned this to you before …” His voice grew more solemn. “But when a Jedi starts talking about how much you mean to her, the future begins to look
very
scary.”

“Oh … sorry.” Jaina’s cheeks warmed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean anything like
that
. Really. I was just trying to—”

“It’s okay.” Lando’s voice was still a little shaky. “And if you
did
mean something—”

“I
didn’t
,” Jaina interrupted.

“I know,” Lando said, raising a hand to stop her. “But if things start to go bad out there, just get back to Coruscant and report. I can take care of myself. Understand?”

“Sure, Lando, I understand.” Jaina started toward the hatchway, silently adding,
But no way am I leaving you behind
.

“Good. Try to stick close. We won’t be hanging around long.” A low whir sounded from Lando’s chair as he turned it to face RN8. “Ornate, prepare an emergency jump to our last coordinates.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Captain Calrissian,” the droid replied. “You gave standing orders to empty the navicomputer’s memory after each jump.”

“What?”
Lando’s anger was edging toward panic now. “How many other orders—no, forget it. Just countermand my previous commands.”


All
of them?”

“Yes!” Lando snapped. “No, wait …”

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