Jacen Solo felt turmoil gathering in him like the roiling clouds down on Belkadan. He knew part of it was simply impatience. He and Luke Skywalker had entered the star system out toward the fringe and R2-D2 had plotted a simple course to Belkadan. It was designed to make them look like a piece of debris being drawn into Belkadan's atmosphere by gravity. To augment the deception, they shut down the engines and most sources of power, leaving the small ship a bit cold and decidedly dark.
He sat alone on the bridge, watching the stars slide past as Belkadan grew ever closer. Studying the planetary profile from Luke and Mara's previous visit, and supplementing it from the ExGal-4 survey of the planet, had prepared Jacen for a yellow-green ball with an atmosphere made mostly of carbon dioxide and methane, but new readings indicated the atmosphere had returned to near normal for Belkadan. The carbon dioxide level remained a bit elevated, and that contributed to it being warmer than archival data indicated it should have been, but not unpleasantly so.
So says Uncle Luke, but he grew up on Tatooine.
Part of Jacen understood exactly what had happened to Belkadan. The Yuuzhan Vong had released some sort of biological agent that had radically altered the planet's ecology, and apparently had something else in place to restore it again to near normal. Jacen was well aware of other examples of a population managing to alter a world's climate and ecology to suit them, so the Yuuzhan Vong's action wasn't unprecedented.
What was stunning was the speed with which they accomplished the changes. Just over two months had passed since Yomin Carr had destroyed the ExGal facility here, and already Belkadan was back to normal. Jacen allowed that the readings his uncle and aunt had taken from before might have been artificially high because of local concentrations of gases, but he knew that to be a rationalization and didn't believe it. He wanted to, however.
The reason for wanting to believe it touched on his turmoil. He was a Jedi Knight, schooled and skilled in the ways of the Force, yet when he reached out and touched Belkadan, he didn't sense anything that was terribly wrong. The world fairly pulsed with life, and none of it was malignant.
That latter fact bothered him because he'd seen the Yuuzhan Vong. He'd listened to Danni's stories of what they'd done to her and Miko. There was no doubt in his mind, no doubt whatsoever, that the Yuuzhan Vong were evil. Such evil should be radiating off that planet like light from a glow panel.
The fact that the Yuuzhan Vong's evil didn't register through the Force shook Jacen deeply. His life had been built on a foundation of good and evil, of light and dark. While he had never known the Emperor or Darth Vader, he had been touched by evil. Recognizing that sensation-the feeling of fiery needles being scraped over flesh-had been a mechanism by which he had steered himself. Now, all of a sudden, just like the blastboat, he was adrift and had no way of avoiding trouble.
The second that thought occurred to him, Jacen knew it wasn't true, but the Yuuzhan Vong's Force invisibility fed into the greater question of whether or not his uncle had found the correct path for the development of Jedi Knights. Luke's training had been predicated on good and evil, yet here was a clear threat and the Jedi Knights were at a disadvantage fighting it. Everything that they had been taught would not help them confront and defeat the Yuuzhan Vong.
He wondered if his approach-the idea of moving off into solitary contemplation of the Force-would provide him the means of recognizing and dealing with the Yuuzhan Vong.
He couldn't bring himself to believe they were not part of the Force in some way. Jacen assumed that at whatever levels he had become attuned to the Force, the Yuuzhan Vong's presence did not somehow register. Animals could hear sounds he could not; alien species could see in spectrums he could not. Is it possible that the Yuuzhan Vong can be spotted in the Force if one's awareness of it is expanded?
He had no answer for that question, but he felt equally certain that his uncle's approach was going to be useless in handling the Yuuzhan Vong. He had no doubt that the Jedi Knights would fight long and hard, and he even counted on them being able to win some battles. Mara had succeeded in killing a Yuuzhan Vong warrior on Belkadan in a duel, but even she admitted that being unable to sense him through the Force put her at a severe disadvantage.
Yet, as much as Jacen wanted to withdraw, he felt guilty and selfish when he contemplated doing so. Danni's pained descriptions of how the Yuuzhan Vong had treated her tugged at his heartstrings. It also reminded him of how much his parents had done to help those who were helpless. He'd grown up in a family where taking responsibility for others was as much a part of life as breathing, and rejecting that ethic was something that just felt wrong to him.
By the same token, he'd seen what it had done to his parents and his uncle. Luke had fought the Empire for twenty years, and his mother had fought even longer than that. They constantly put their lives on the line, never having a moment that could be considered normal in their lives. If it wasn't kidnappers and assassins trying to snatch or kill them, it was some planet's population trying to wipe some other species out. His parents and his uncle never had time for themselves.
Jacen frowned and avoided descending to self-pity. Despite having to deal with the problems of others, his parents had always done their best to nurture their children. There might have been times when official business kept his mother away, but she always managed to make up for it-not by bringing some gift from a faraway world, but by sharing time with him and his siblings. And his father had gone from being protector to good friend and confidant. Luke had been friend and mentor, and all of them meant more to Jacen than he knew he would ever be able to express.
Which is why rejecting them and the way of the Jedi seemed wrong, and yet so necessary. His hands flexed into fists, then he forced them open again. Having grown up with an awareness of the Force, he understood it in ways that Luke never could. He had insights he could share with his uncle or mother, but they would never come upon those insights by themselves. They see things in large chunks, and I see the details on those chunks.
"It's almost time, isn't it?"
Jacen started, then looked over and saw his uncle hanging in the cockpit hatchway. "Yes. We're being pulled in by Belkadan's gravity. We have two minutes to atmosphere. I can take it in, you know."
Luke nodded, then slipped into the cockpit and dropped into the copilot's chair. R2-D2 rolled into the cockpit behind him and locked himself into a landing bracket built into the bulkhead. Luke smiled at the droid, then looked at Jacen. "Just remember, we want as little nudging as possible. We want everything to look natural."
Jacen nodded. His uncle had advanced the theory that if the Yuuzhan Vong used living creatures the way others used machines, then the patterns those creatures would be most adept at noticing would be the sort that were unnatural or panicked-prey behavior patterns. A smooth insertion with minimal course changes would seem unremarkable, or so he hoped. Jacen agreed that his idea made sense, but that was from a human point of view. I just hope the Yuuzhan Vong concur.
He settled his hands on the control wheel and restarted the engines. He kept thrust at zero, but fed a little power into the repulsorlift coils. A little rudder and a gentle easing of the yoke forward brought the Skipray blastboat, Courage, into the atmosphere. It bucked at first, but Jacen kept his hands steady on the controls. He glanced at Luke to see if his handling of the ship suited his uncle.
Luke gave him a little nod, then glanced at a monitor containing navigational data. "We're ten thousand kilometers from the ExGal site. Heading 33 mark 30 at the moment, dropping as we go."
"Got it. I wanted to be over the mountains before I turn us to port."
"Good plan." Luke closed his eyes and started breathing very slowly. "Nothing amiss at the moment."
"Thanks." Jacen flipped a switch to reverse thrust and then nudged the throttle forward. Airspeed began to drop, and the blastboat with it. It didn't fall so sharply as to be under control, but just enough to suggest the ship was about as aerodynamic as a meteorite burning into the atmosphere.
He brought the ship lower and lower until, over the heart of the northern continent, he dropped beneath the level of a mountain ridge to the east. Once it hid him, he pumped power to the engines, killing his airspeed quickly. He dropped the blastboat down low and killed thrust. He flipped the switch again, setting the engines to propel him forward, then he stretched out with the Force and scouted ahead for signs of life.
He found plenty, and most all of it was within normal limits for what he expected to find. There was some that seemed harsh, almost like clashing colors, and he steered away from these areas. He took the ship north, then darted through a mountain gap and piloted the ship in toward the ExGal site. He brought the ship down to the north and east, well away from the antenna arrays attached to the facility's communications tower, then shut the engines down and unbuckled himself from the restraining straps.
Luke opened his eyes slowly, then nodded. "We are. You recognized the sources of the Force out there, yes?"
"I caught something. It didn't feel right to me. What do you think it was?"
"I don't know. Sentient life-forms, definitely under stress, perhaps diseased. They seem worn away, frayed somehow. What I do know is that I didn't find them here weeks ago."
Jacen's head came up. "Does Mara ever feel like that to you?"
Luke's quick intake of breath suggested the question stung a bit. "Not that, no, but Mara is strong. If it's the same disease, it might be that they're in the end phase of whatever she has, but we have no way of knowing that."
The younger Jedi led the way from the cockpit. He pulled on a belt from which hung his lightsaber, a pouch with a rebreather, a canteen of water, and a blaster. His uncle joined him, taking a similar belt from the equipment locker, then handed Jacen a pair of goggles.
Jacen frowned. "What are these for?"
"You remember Mara's description of her fight with Carr? I don't know if the Yuuzhan Vong amphistaff can spit venom to blind you, or if they have some other sort of weapon that will accomplish the same end. Since we can't sense them through the Force, sight is going to be our most powerful ally, and one we shouldn't lose by chance." Luke pulled on his own goggles, then loosened his blaster in its holster. "Mara said their armor turned blaster bolts and even slowed down lightsabers, so shoot well and cut even better."
Jacen smiled. "Wow. For a second there you sounded like Dad."
R2-D2 hooted a quick comment.
Luke cocked his head for a moment, then nodded. "It seems that whenever I'm in a situation where the odds against success are pretty substantial, I think about what your father would say or do. Doesn't mean I do that, but his example is one it's tough to forget."
Luke punched a big red button on the bulkhead, and the landing ramp on the blastboat slid open. He led the way down and crouched at the foot of the ramp. He pressed his hand to the ground, rolled some of the dirt around between his fingers, then sniffed.
"When I was here last, there was a lot of sulfur in the air, but I don't smell much at all right now. Something managed to drag it out of the air." He pointed at some creeping green ground cover that had spread over much of the facility and its walls. "None of that was here, either. Perhaps it was what cleaned the air."
Jacen shrugged. "You were the one raised on a farm."
"That was a moisture farm on a desert planet." His uncle looked up at him. "Anything like this in the data files you reviewed?"
"Nothing I recall."
Luke stood and started walking toward the gate in the ExGal facility wall. The gate itself stood open, but the leafy green plant had grown all over it. Luke pushed the vines apart and ducked his head to get through. Jacen followed closely and quickly found himself in a green tunnel.
He was watching his feet, making certain he didn't trip, which is why he bumped into his uncle's back. "Sorry."
"No matter. Look at this."
Luke stepped clear of the vines and into a small courtyard. Jacen followed him, and R2-D2 rolled up between them. The little droid started bouncing from foot to foot and issued a low, mournful moan.
Luke rested a hand on the droid's dome. "I know, Artoo, I know."
The green plant overgrew everything save in a wide oval, the end of which included the door to the ExGal facility. Equipment had been placed in the oval, only two meters from the door, and it took Jacen a couple of seconds to identify everything gathered there. He knew what it all was, of course, but he'd never seen it arranged the way it was.
The centerpiece of the display was an R5 unit that had been decapitated. Where its truncated-cone head should have been sat a fleshless human skull. Rainbow-colored wires came up and out through the eye sockets and mouth, the latter having a wire ribbon roll out like a tongue. Scattered around it like toys spilled from a broken bin lay computer consoles, holoprojector plates, food synthesizers, and a hair dryer from a refresher station. These items had been smashed to the point of uselessness, and the dents in their metal flesh looked as if something had kicked or stomped them.
Jacen looked at his uncle. "What is it?"
Luke's expression sharpened. "A warning, clearly. What I wonder, though, is who it's directed at."
"Whoever it was that you felt out there?"
The Jedi Master sighed. "That would be my guess, but guesses aren't what we came here for. Learning the answer-that will be tough. I just hope it's not too tough, or the answers we get will remain here, on Belkadan, and you and I could spend eternity like this poor fellow: warning others to stay away."