Knights of the Old Republic: Outcasts
Chapter Eight: Crescendo

Renn braced himself. Liana was trying her hardest to avoid but there were just too many fighters. Laser light flashed past the viewport, and the Wanderer shook violently. Renn closed his eyes. It was going to be over before they'd even had a chance.

And then, his console whooped for attention. His eyes blinked open. "Why aren't we dead? We should be dead."

"Are you complaining?" Kara asked shakily from somewhere behind him.

"No, just curious." He scanned his console. "Wait, that can't be right." His hands moved, trying to find an explanation for what he was seeing.

Beside him, Liana leaned forward in her seat to stare are her readouts, as if she couldn't believe what she saw. Her eyes were wide. "Renn, look," she gasped.

A small fleet of Republic warships, the last of which were still jumping in as they watched, had appeared behind them.

The insistent beeping drew Renn's attention back to the comm. "The Republic flagship wants to talk to us, Captain."

"All right, let's find out who's out there."

A voice and face resolved on the transmission screen. "...anderer, Wanderer, respond. It is vital you maintain your present course."

"Aeron?!" Kara exclaimed in shock

"Why maintain? It'll make us a bigger target," Renn protested.

"This is why," Aeron responded easily. He glanced off screen. "Fire when ready, Captain."

A veritable fountain of turbolaser fire erupted all around the Wanderer. It tore through Sith fighters, holed battleships already struggling to raise shield against the newcomers and punched straight through to Derra IV.

"That's a good reason," Kara mused.

Liana nodded and kept the ship steady on its course toward the planet. The craft shook with the impact of the lasers against their targets but was otherwise untouched by the Republic barrage.

"I didn't think your Masters were keen on helping us," Renn said to the Jedi. "How'd you convince them?"

"I didn't," Aeron said icily. "So I told them what for and left to find other help. Being with you people has been a seriously negative influence on me," he said with a wink.

Renn bit back a laugh that was fueled almost as much by relief than Aeron's joke. Wouldn't do for the Jedi to get the wrong idea. "You learned good timing, at least," he replied.

"Renn, less chatter please," Liana said briskly. "I need you to figure out where we're going on the planet before we get there."

"Yes, Captain." Renn pulled up his sensor displays. "Kara, what are we looking for?"

Kara's eyes closed, but snapped open a moment later with the glee of a hound on a fresh scent. "It's some sort of cave, northern hemisphere, dayward side. There's a huge concentration of life around a big empty... spot. Venaar probably ringed himself with as many soldiers as he could. Can you find a big knot of them?

Aeron glanced off-screen again. "Found it. Feeding you the coordinates now. We'll keep the armada off your back and drop some troops of our own to give you cover. May the Force..." he paused. "Good luck, Wanderer. Make it back safe." Aeron signed off.

"That's the plan," Renn muttered, as the Wanderer closed in on the coordinates and whatever awaited them on the planet's surface.


Throughout all of galactic history, no type of soldier was more revered, or more insane, than the Republic Rocket Trooper.

Encased in body armor and armed with anti-artillery photon grenades, the Rocket Troopers were deployed from nothing less than the mass-driver of an orbiting Republic warship. They would then enter the planet's ionosphere and eventually the atmosphere with nothing between them and burning up but a thin, ablative bag. This bag was made of a memory cloth that would, when cool enough after heating, spread rudimentary wings and enable the trooper to maneuver slightly and remain in formation. The trooper would be in this state of barely-controlled free fall for several minutes before becoming active.

They were designed to operate under the idea that a human body was far too small for the average planetary defense emplacement to target. At a predetermined altitude, the trooper's entry bag would literally disintegrate, allowing the trooper to bring his grenade launcher to bear on whatever field artillery the enemy had deployed beneath him.

After firing a few rounds, the trooper would then, and only then, engage an emergency chute that would slow them down enough to crash into the planet's surface and survive.

It was a tradition in the Rocket Troops that new recruits not take their first Jump sober. The reason being that no one would do this in a legal state of mind.

The Telosian Security Forces did not have any Rocket Troops, but an entire battalion of them had arrived at the fleet's rally point and volunteered. "Because barracks life was getting boring," as their commander had put it.

In the ready area of a Republic ship, the commander of the Battalion heard the question that always signaled a Jump was about to begin.

"Sir, I hear the Sith use shuttles to ferry their troops down. Why don't we do that?"

"Because, Private, they're too lazy! Now seal up and ready to Jump."

The specially fitted Republic Hammerhead class warships were positioning themselves above the orbital window to reach the target site.

Mass-drivers extended, each of the four vessels began firing six troopers every second towards the planet below.


"Oh my... those people are insane," Kara breathed as the first Rocket Troops caught up with the Wanderer.

"Rocket Troops?" Renn asked. "Yeah, that's a good label for them."

"This one's waving at us," Kara observed. She waved back, at a loss for any other reaction.

At that point, the field cannons the Sith had brought down with them opened up at them, the Wanderer being the only thing big enough to see.

They tried to evade the fire but it was too much, and the freighter rocked violently. "We're hit!" Liana shouted. She was fighting the controls now, trying to guide the ship down toward what looked like a plain. "Brace yourselves. We're going to crash."

The impact would have thrown them out of their seats had they not been strapped in. The Wanderer plowed a furrow into the ground before the ship's momentum ran out, and then stopped with a bone-jarring jolt.

Renn's fingers flew over his console. "Okay, main power's still good. Repulsors and all drive systems are down. Weapons and shields are both fried. In other words, we have now have a nice house."

"Renn!" Kara snapped.

"Don't worry, they're all repairable in about ten hours," he replied. "Unfortunately, we won't have that long. Sensors tell me there's about three thousand or so troops marching up the backside of that hill towards us." He pointed.

"How far are we from the target?" Liana asked.

"Only about forty miles or so. A couple days hard walking."

"We don't have a couple of days," Kara said, her face falling and her voice far away.

"At any rate, we need to get out of here before we're trapped," Liana said, unstrapping herself from the safety harness. "Renn, is T5 ready?"

Renn released his own harness. "Well, now that we have Republic troops around, I need to make a little modification to his programming. It'll only take me a few seconds."

"What modification?"

"Well, I set him up to shoot anyone who wasn't us. I should probably widen that so he doesn't shoot our new allies in the back." He headed toward the back of the ship.

"Kara? Come on, we have to move." Liana released the girl's safety harness for her.

Kara looked up at her, eyes still anywhere but here. "Some homecoming, huh?" she asked.

Liana wasn't sure what was wrong, but she knew they didn't have time for this. Being careful with her claws this time, she backhanded the girl across the cheek hard enough to sting. "Kara! Focus! We need to get out of here before the Sith arrive."

Struggling out of her restraints, the girl followed Liana out, still silent, but at least aware of her danger now.

"T5's updated," Renn said joining them beside the airlock hatch.

Liana grabbed a small survival and med pack from a locker handed it to B4. "You're Medic until I say otherwise," she instructed.

Kara keyed the hatch open and T5 rolled up to the hatch and happily tooting, out into the light of day. The sound of blaster fire soon reached them, along with happy droid melodies.

"Damn, their scouts are closer than we thought. We can't get trapped in here." Renn started for the hatch, but Liana's hand stopped him.

"I'll go first. Stay close to Kara." And then Liana was through the hatch, both blasters out.

Renn glanced at Kara. She was just standing there, staring out the hatch. "Come on." He drew his blaster and started down the ramp. He checked back over his shoulder to make sure Kara was following him.

She bolted past him. Her lightsaber was already separated and both blades gleamed gold against the sky.

Kara stood her ground, covering her friends' retreat as her blades moved faster than humanly possible. She was perfect as she lunged and sent deadly light back to its source. The scouts' fire soon diminished and Kara moved to join her friends in wary withdrawal.

Abruptly, B4 pointed and cried out in alarm, "Mistress Liana! Look, shuttles approaching!"

"Reinforcements?" she asked, squinting against the sky.

Renn swore. There were at least ten shuttles dropping from the sky. Three were already lifting off again, having disgorged their troops directly in the crew's path. "They're not on our side."

Liana pulled up short. "We're going to be surrounded." She was scanning the area for a more defensible position, but there was very little but the Sith troops and the smoking hulk of the ship within on the plains. "Kara, run. You need to get to Venaar."

"No," Renn interrupted. Liana turned to stare at him. "If she runs, she's a target. They'll just shoot her in the back." He grabbed Kara's arm. "Listen, we're not important here. We got you here, we're done. Surrender if you have to, use some Jedi trick to get them to take you to Venaar. As long as you stay alive, you can end this."

Kara spared him a pitying glance. "Don't go self-sacrificing on me, spacer boy, I was just calling in some friends."

"What? What friends?" he demanded, not relinquishing his grip on her arm.

She pointed to a wisp of cloud. "Them."

Liana narrowed her eyes as she studied the white mass. "It's moving...against the wind?"

Indeed the cloud was getting closer, larger. It soon resolved into a soft flurry of movement. A basso rumble of Music made Kara wince with a smile. WE COME!

Gliderwings, thousands of them, fell from the sky upon the gathering Sith troops. They tore at the troopships, a flight of four shredding one in mid-air. They stooped upon soldiers and clutched them in their claws to dash against rocks. Some were already stained crimson from their carnage.

A great white beast landed next to Kara with a surprisingly little sound. It butted its head against her chest. I missed you, my featherless fledgling, it sang. It is good that you return. Something...stirs.

Kara nodded. That is why my friends and I are here. Can you carry us to it? she asked in the Music.

O

ther Gliderwings had since landed. One poked at Renn curiously, but they steered clear of Liana.

"What are they?" Liana asked, as Renn batted at the one who was prodding his arm.

&

quot;My friends. They are called gliderwings. They can sing in the Music and," she giggled, "I think they are afraid of you."

"We will carry you into battle," the one before her sang. "That Which is Not is growing. It will consume the world if we allow it."


Kieran Venaar's mind shrank back from the power he felt flood him. It wasn't the hot, searing power of anger, hate, love. No this power was so cold it burned. It was the power of death.

This cave, this entire world existed solely to keep this cold implacable nothingness in check. He would unbar the door, and allow it to empty into this universe with the thunderous certainty of a flood, He would drown the meaningless and unseemly chaos in pure, perfect order.

He would end all things.

His heart cried with joy, the pure, simple beauty of it all.

Of course, the door was not merely barred, it was guarded. She was here, he knew. She would always be here and she would stop him.

Let her come. Let the Silence consume her mind and erase her stain from this perfection.


Above Derra IV, the small band of Republic warships hammered away at a Sith fleet that was slow to respond.

Great Sith battleships that required thousands to properly crew them were having to make do with dozens. Systems went down, never to return, and shields collapsed under the surgical fire of the Republic vessels.

The Dragon itself was no exception. Captain Hyridan sat at a bridge gunnery station, trying to coordinate the actions of his own ship at least, as the laughably small Republic task force tore his great armada to shreds. They just didn't have the manpower. All the ships, weapons and technical supremacy of the Sith was useless because Lord Venaar had stripped them of the people needed to make the tools of war effective.

Slowly, inexorably, the Sith were being driven back. The Republic's goal was clear, they wanted to occupy the space above Lord Venaar's position. Probably to bombard it from orbit.

Hyridan saw a gap open in the Sith lines and barked at a communications officer to order vessels to fill it, but he had no way of knowing if the order went out. There was sheer chaos across their tactical frequencies.

The Dragon bucked from the impact of multiple torpedo hits. The shields flickered, then died.

Hyridan stood and glared defiance out towards the smaller Republic vessel. As the turbo laser fire pierced his ship's conn tower and the bridge itself he sounded the battle cry of the Sith navy, and died a proud man.


Aboard the Telosian flagship, Aeron watched the fiery death of the Sith cruiser. "How long until we reach target coordinates?" he asked a tech.

"We're three degrees out. At this rate, less than a minute." The man paused. "Ground control reports that all the Rocket Troops are dirt-side. They're engaging the Sith ground forces at the Wanderer crash site, but they say the freighter was deserted."

The Jedi arched an eyebrow. "Bad manners, not waiting for us to rescue them..." He turned back to the gunners. "As soon as we are in position I want you to clear a path between the Wanderer and the cave. Carve it right through the Sith lines."

"Yes sir" the officer responded.


Light years away, five Jedi masters huddled in close council.

They spoke in hushed whispers that a lesser man might call fearful. They spoke of the end of everything, of the threat posed by Bladedancer's kin.

"Our final chapter is being penned," D'Yarn said gravely. "We must find what peace we can in that."

The sound of their council chamber door opening made all five look up. A figure strode into their midst purposefully, concealing a furious power that no human frame should ever contain. He wore flowing robes of white and the light reflected in sharp glare from his garments. His hood was pulled up, hiding his face from view, but not quite concealing the maze of scars and tattoos that covered his cheeks and chin.

The council all sank to one knee in reverence.

"Master," Ashee Quin intoned. "You return to us."

When the man in white spoke his voice was harsh, gravely. As if he forced the words through a damaged mouth. "The prophesied moment approaches."

"It does, Lord," D'Yarn said.

"Be not afraid, friends," the man said. "The girl is equal to the task I have appointed her. It shall be as I foresaw. She shall awaken, and then, we will make her ours."

The council bowed low, touching foreheads to the floor.


The thunder of turbolaser fire cut through the clouds and gouged deep wounds in the earth. The Sith army had no defense against it. Portable shield generators could only do so much and they were too widely scattered. The fire fell in a kilometer-wide swath, starting at the outer fringes of their formation and moving steadily towards the center.

The ships in orbit were hampered a bit by the terrain they were firing into. They could only maintain position for a short time. The Sith fleet was still not destroyed, though it was only a matter of time before they would have to withdraw.

There was little for the soldiers to do but find what cover they could and pray that the fire was not coming for them this day.

When the rain of death passed them, men dared to look out into the sky, only to find that death had not yet departed.

Great white feathered beasts dropped on them from the heavens, their cruel, chitinous beaks sounding ear-splitting battle cries and their talons piercing armor and flesh alike. They fell on the soldiers and rent them limb from limb. The bird-like creatures died by the hundreds, but the Sith died by the thousands.

At the head of the great host of winged death rode a figure encased in golden armor and wielding a blade of pure sun-fire.

Rumors of her escape from the Dragon had spread like wildfire through the ranks. This was Lady Vanden, and to close with her was to die.

Her mount slashed the air with its wings as it brought its claws to bear like a farmer's scythe on a massive rank of troops. Their return fire sped away from the beast, deflected by the rider's glowing blade. As it climbed above them again for another pass, the rider lept from her mount and landed without a sound in the space cleared by her last assault.

Her blade striking fearsome highlight form her armor, the figure assumed a ready stance.


Kara was breathing hard by the time she hit the ground.

The death and the pain of wounded men washed through her like acid, eroding her strength and weakening her resolve.

And this was only the beginning.

A scant hundred meters now stood between her and the cave. She could feel the sucking black nothingness inside it like a treacherous undertow. It called to her, thankful for the deaths she and her companions had fed it so far, but still anxious for the main course to begin.

S

he brought her blades up and called a challenge to the men who barred her way. "My business is with your Lord. Stand aside or I will force my way to him."

Her response came from a sergeant, his armor dull and dented from more than just this day's fighting. He spoke not a word, but raised his rifle and fired.

The shot triggered an onslaught of fire from his men and Kara was in the thick of fighting once more, She parried, she spun and slashed, she stabbed through men's armor and sent their own blaster fire back to them. Soon there were only fifty yards, then twenty, a dozen... and then, she was there, and a trail of bodies marked her passage.

As she broke into the open, mere feet from the cave itself, two gliderwings landed behind her and Renn and Liana dropped to the ground.

"He's in there?" Renn asked simply.

Kara nodded.

"Good." Renn and Liana checked their blasters and the Wanderer's captain drew her ceremonial blade. "Let's go kill him."

The three friends strode into the cave together.


Somehow, Kara had expected there to be some sort of altar or artifice within the cave, something to signify the presence of the darkness contained here. The lack of any such structure only made it more frightening to her. She motioned Renn and Liana to stay back. "Guard the entrance, make sure no one else gets in."

"Right," Renn said. "Be careful, Kara."

Liana put a hand on her shoulder. "I would not have missed these last few weeks for anything. Come back to us, Kara."

Kara didn't trust herself to answer. For what may be the last time, she looked at her friends. "Be well," she said simply to them, and moved deeper into the cave.

The cavern was a vast empty hole. The floor was flat and wide, leading up gently to a raised level spot, upon which Venaar knelt, glaring down at her like a king upon his throne.

"Lady Vanden," Venaar said silkily as she drew near. "Your grandmother's armor suits you."

"We're going to end it now, Venaar," she responded. "Your army is being defeated, and your fleet is lost. Now, I'm going to kill you. The Silence ends here."

Venaar laughed. "The Silence does not end here, even if you win. The Jedi have struggled since their inception with this simple truth, and now it is your turn. How does one shine brightly and not cast an equally dark shadow? You cannot exist without me."

"You don't get it do you?" Kara said. "You took everything from me. I don't CARE if I survive or not, but I will end you. Right here, and right now."

"You're wrong, you know." Venaar sighed. "I admit, I lied to you. I want this power, this Silence. But everything else I ever said to you was the utter truth."

"The sad part is that you think I care about your lies." She lit both blades and whipped them into a ready stance.

"Your tragedy is complete then." Venaar got to his feet and suddenly, there was a tongue of blood red lightsaber blade in his right hand. "Shall we dance, my Lady?"

His movement was so fast not even Kara was aware of it. He appeared beside her, his blade licking towards her. She blocked it, but only barely, and it entangled both of her sabers to do it. Then he was moving again, flicking his single blade against hers with the precision that comes only of long practice.

Kara had indeed inherited Selene's gift with the lightsaber, but she was untrained. Her style was raw, more talent and instinct than skill. For the first time, she faced someone who knew the art of sword combat, and she could do nothing against him.

He toyed with her, scorching her armor here and there, never searing deep enough to wound. Always flittering away like a ghost. He was everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

Fear knotted Kara's insides as the fight continued. Venaar was too much for her; she was not going to beat him. She was going to die in this cave and there was nothing she could do. The notes of her Music faded into the vast echoing halls of Silence.

Finally, Venaar's assault eased. He moved beyond her reach and extinguished his blade. "It is a pity, really, that you were never trained," he said sadly. "This is not even difficult."

'He's not even breathing hard,' Kara thought as she struggled to fill her heaving lungs.

"I will finish you quickly if you ask it of me," he said gravely. "This silly dancing about is entertaining, I suppose, but hardly befitting our rank. Selene would weep for your lack of ability. Stand down and let this end."

"Don't you sully her name, monster," Kara panted. "Selene would be disgusted by you and what you've become. You slaughter whole worlds, and you want to kill the universe itself." Uncounted life, beauty beyond measure, and a future not guessed at, all denied because she allowed it? No. Something in her would not let the fatigue, the fear and the sorrow wash her away that easily. No. "If I have to die anyway, I'm going down with your blood on my hands."

Then, something in her clicked. A song, a beautiful, mournful, but determined song. In this instant, she heard not only the life around her, but all life. Everywhere.

It was beautiful.

Venaar's face hardened. "Then let us end it." His blade flared again and he charged.

She neatly sidestepped him.

His blade came back around, aiming for her neck. She bowed and the blade flew by with nary a singed hair.

The Music of the universe sang in her heart, and it was a tune she knew well.

Her blades came around in a neat arc that Venaar barely parried. His own counter thrust flicked between her guard and would have scored had she still been there. She spun away and brought one blade around to deflect the strike, countering again, and again and again. Their blades flashed as they danced back and forth across the cave.

Kara had thought Bladedancer was a term of honor used to address Selene's skill with her lightsabers. It wasn't. Bladedancer was the way she fought.

She was well into the dance now, and Venaar could no more touch her than he could swallow a star. His parries grew more desperate, his strikes fewer and less accurate. His strength was flagging, while light and Music poured into Kara.

He reached out with his power and flung the stones of the cave at her, but she parried them. He tried to break her guard with his lightsaber and was rebuffed. He reached for her with his inner dankness and was burned back by her blazing light.

Slowly, inexorably, he tried to retreat now, deeper into the cave. Kara cut his escape off and forced him back towards the entrance. With one final surging rush, they broke into the first gallery, where Renn and Liana were still holding off a few of the more determined Sith soldiers. It seemed most of the army had given up and retreated as republic troop ships landed outside.

V

enaar fell to one knee gasping. "I yield, Lady Vanden. Spare me." He extinguished his blade and flung it from him down the gallery.

S

he drew near him, her blades still bright and wary.

Suddenly, an inner voice surged up from the Silence within Venaar. "Behind you!" it screamed.

Kara spun and sliced neatly through the re-ignited red lightsaber that was rocketing toward her back at Venaar's call.

Venaar surged to his feet, walls of darkness radiating out from him as the Silence again smothered the inner voice. Another lightsaber glowed in his left hand.

Kara's whirling parry brought her back around and the new weapon was also sliced in half, taking most of Venaar's hand with it. Her other blade came back around and speared the Sith lord through the mid- section.

Venaar gasped as the golden fire burned through him and emerged on the other side. The music in Kara's mind paused, as if holding the final chord and she staggered back, her lightsaber extinguished, dropping to the floor.

The Dark Lord of the Sith crumpled to his knees again, a look of shocked chagrin on his face; then he threw his head back and quite literally roared.

A cloud of inky blackness emptied out of him, all the dark foulness draining away as the inner notes of Venaar's own death drove the Silence from his soul.

It gathered above him, the wrongness of it assaulting Kara's senses and distorting the Music. The thing seemed to consider those about it. It shied from her instantly, but then it considered the soldiers outside, as if it were coming to some momentous choice, and then, it paused.

And then Renn screamed as the Silence took him.

It poured into him, streaming down in a funnel of pure black and entered him. It fought to subdue his inner song. With pleading eyes, Renn looked at Kara. He was being consumed by it, and he knew it.

Liana screamed and threw herself upon him.

Kara stood stunned. Killing Venaar had not ended the Silence, it had merely taken one of her friends instead, someone it knew she could not kill.

A small sound reached her. Venaar was gasping. "When you shine, you cast... a shadow," he said weakly. "You must... deal with the shadow... you cast."

And then, she knew what she needed to do.

Taking three steps, Kara lifted Liana away from Renn. She spoke not a word to her friend, but she put a warm hand against her furred cheek. The other woman seemed to understand and retreated without another sound.

Kara knelt by the writhing form of Renn. He screamed as she touched him. She put her hands gently to his face and touched her forehead to his. Then, she began to Sing.


High in orbit, Aeron's mind exploded.

A vision, a vision of great white wings of light enveloping the galaxy, the universe in pure, accepting love.

"Kara," he breathed as tears burned his cheeks.


Kara Tao Vanden sang.

She sang of grassy valleys and blue skies. She sang of family. She sang of life, light and love. She sang of freedom and goodness, and she sang of the future.

The song echoed through her. The entire universe heard the clear, crystal notes as it shuddered with the reverberations of Music.

And as she sang, she began to glow. A soft radiance at first, like a sunbeam through the war-tattered clouds above the cave, but then stronger, as the Music of life filled her and she radiated it out a hundred fold.

She sang.

The light grew still further and it enveloped her and Renn. The darkness within him quivered in fear and tried to flee, but it had nowhere to go. All around it burned with Kara's light and Kara's song.

As the song continued, other voices -- strong ancient voices -- joined hers. The gliderwings had entered her song and added their chorus to the Music. Then other voices came, scattered across the world, and then voices from other worlds. The universe itself sang.

The light grew and changed. It became a set of glorious wings which suddenly erupted from Kara's back. The wings grew and spread, they reached back though the cave, through the world to the ends of time and space. There, they folded. And curved about the universe.

As her friends had done for her in her pain, her wings enfolded those she loved in light, warmth and peace.

The Silence found nowhere it could exist in a Universe of Music and light. It simply ceased to be.

The only way to not cast a shadow, after all, is to shine everywhere at once.

Slowly, the moment passed. And the Music faded to its normal level. Kara slumped away from Renn.

Liana returned and embraced him. He seemed stunned, staring at Kara with unreadable eyes.

"Kara?" came another weak voice off to her right. Venaar was still barely alive. "Before the Force takes me, I have to say one last thing to you." His voice in the music was low, but there. Venaar's Silence was gone from this universe.

She went to him, and he seized her hand. "I... I failed. I am so sorry. I was not always that... creature. I was a Jedi once. A young Padawan, who followed his Master-father to war."

Kara could find no words.

"I swore," he gasped. "I swore to protect you when he did, when Jhoral did. But the Silence took me.. I couldn't stop it..."

"Hush," Kara soothed. It didn't really surprise her. Not now. "Your duty is done, cousin. Rest. It is fine now."

Venaar smiled, and then he simply let go. His song reached its crescendo, and faded into the Music forever.


The remaining Sith troops had surrendered after that. Not that Renn really noticed. He let Liana check him over for injury without saying a word, enduring poking and prodding that normally would have drawn protest. When she was satisfied with his physical state, she suggested to Kara that they go back to the ship to check him out more thoroughly, and then to begin the repairs. He hardly heard their discussion. Renn didn't even complain about the gliderwings, which was a surer sign of his much subdued state of mind than anything else.

He was completely drained. Not just tired, though he was that too. He felt empty. Unable to think.

When they arrived back at the ship, they found a knot of Republic rocket troops hoisting a beeping T5 on their brawny shoulders as if he was a hero. Maybe he was. Liana, her tail lashing, took a step toward them, as if to demand they give back her droid.

Kara stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Let them," she said quietly. "I have a feeling he's earned it."

Ears back, Liana turned to survey the ship instead. Renn did too, the first hint of something else rising past the sheen of numbness that had fallen over him. It was in bad shape, his home. He was going to have to do something about that.

He moved past the two women, startling them, to the ramp where the anxious B4 was hovering. "I've begun some of the basic repairs," the droid began. Renn ignored him, and went straight for the engine room.

It was enough, to have the repairs to focus on. Something to do, something else to concentrate on. Liana appeared in the doorway after a little while - Renn didn't know how long - and she crouched by where he sat on the engine room floor, surrounded by parts and tools. "Renn, are you sure you're all right?" she asked.

He nodded. She didn't leave. Finally, Renn set down the parts in his hands and looked at her. "I will be," he said. "I think."

Liana bowed her head and touched his hair. "You should rest."

"I'll rest when we're off the ground," he replied, taking up his tools again, "where we belong." A hint of amusement in his voice, he added, "I want to get off this rock."

His captain chuckled. "Isn't that how we got into this?" she asked, ruffling his hair as she stood. "Kara went back to her family farm. We may have to wait for her."

"She'll be here in time," he replied, reaching back into the open panel he'd been working on. He wasn't sure how, but he knew she would be.


Kara Tao Vanden knelt before two rude graves on the little hill above her family's farm. She carefully scraped away the earth on the other side of her mother and deposited the ruined remains of Selene's holocron into the hole, covering it reverently. Just beyond, separated a short ways from her parents, was another new grave, this one labeled 'Venaar, loyal kin and protector'

Finished, she stood and wiped the dirt from her knees. Nature was already reclaiming the fields her family had tilled, and the burned house was little more than a dark smudge of charred earth now. Memories tugged at her and brought fresh grief.

"It is the way of things, Child." A voice floated to her on the wind, comforting.

"I know, Grandmother," Kara said. "But that doesn't make it easier. I miss them."

"They are with you, Kara," the ghost of Selene replied, shimmering into view near the grave stones. "They are always with you, as am I. We are so very proud of you."

Kara smiled then, wanly, but still a smile. She turned and went towards the gliderwing that had stayed with her since their reunion on the battlefield. He wrapped his long neck around her shoulders in an embrace of friendship and she stroked his feathers. Her oldest friend, bidding her goodbye.


Kara arrived at the site of the Wanderer in time to see the Republic engineers hoist it onto a temporary repair facility. The ship was swarming with techs and repair droids all working happily at repairing the vessel. At the foot of its boarding ramp, she found Renn, Liana and Aeron talking.

"I have no wish to return to Solara and the Jedi," Aeron said flatly. "The council turned its back on the code. I still serve that tradition, but they do not. It does, however, leave me without a home."

&

quot;What are we, a halfway house for itinerant Jedi?" Renn asked with only a hint of his usual ire.

"Well, you DO have a spare bunk, do you not?" Aeron asked.

Renn flashed Liana a pleading look. She ignored it. "We do," she said simply. The captain seemed to notice Kara's approach then, and raised one hand in greeting. "They say the repairs will be finished in a few more hours."

"Yeah, after they just took over without asking," Renn muttered.

"You'd rather still be stuck in our own crater?" Kara asked.

"No, I'd rather be doing something to fix it myself," he retorted.

"Just not enough to go and help, though, apparently," Aeron commented.

Renn flashed the other man a dark look, then stalked off toward the ship, stopping to grab a kit from a hapless tech as he passed.

Liana watched him go, her ears back in concern.

"So..." Kara said into the uneasy silence, "where to next, Boss?"

"I suspect we may have to lay low until things settle down. I'm not sure how many of Renn's contacts would still be willing to consider us. We may have a hard time finding employment." The Trianii hesitated before asking, "Are you certain you wish to come with us?"

Kara considered her response. A whole host things came to her. Some were witty, some were emotional. Finally she settled on, "Yes".


*

Epilogue


*

The Wanderer left the planet of Derra IV several hours later. The Republic techs had been thorough, and there was very little trace of their recent presence - except, perhaps, that the ship's engines no longer made that one peculiar whining sound that Renn had never quite been able to fix. One of the techs had even taken it upon himself to repair T5's fresh battle-scoring.

Renn had been quiet as the ship lifted off. If the others put it down to his ordeal on the planet or his resentment of the Republic techs, he didn't care. Let them think what they wanted. He read his console screen again, his mouth set in a line.

The taunting message from his old "friend" Gaman had been waiting for him when he'd come back on board the ship. He didn't mention it to Liana, but even now, as he calculated the jump to Nar Shaddaa on one side of his display, he had a tracer program working in the background on Gaman's message. He'd been the one to suggest Nar Shaddaa as their next destination; Liana readily agreed, as the Hutt- and Exchange-ruled world seemed a likely place to lay low for a few weeks and possibly find a job, but it hadn't been Renn's only reason.

He had some people he needed to talk to. Preferably without Liana finding out.

He pushed himself up from his chair. "The navicomputer's ready. I'm going to take one last look around to make sure the techs didn't screw anything up."

Liana nodded. He could almost feel her concerned eyes on his back as he left the cockpit. Hopefully, when he didn't self-destruct, she stop looking at him like that in a few days.

Renn made a circuit of the ship, followed by the mournfully beeping T5, who seemed to be upset about his repairs. He ignored the droid. He wasn't entirely sure what he was looking for. Or maybe he just needed some space.

He returned to the cockpit just as Liana was getting ready to initiate the hyperspace jump. Kara sat at one of the rear cockpit stations, idly humming a pretty tune to herself. Aeron sat opposite her, apparently lost in thought, and Liana, as Renn expected, turned to look moderately relieved at his state of continued existence.

Renn glanced at Kara before he sat down. "That's pretty. It sounds familiar."

Liana blinked at him. "Renn?"

"What?"

"She..." Aeron said frowning, "was quiet."

"I heard nothing," Liana agreed.

"She was just humming," Renn replied, looking again at Kara, this time for confirmation.

Kara blinked. "Um, I was. Just not with my voice."

The four looked at each other and groaned a nearly universal "Oh, no..."

>-End, Outcasts Book 1