Kyp Durron guided his E-wing into the turbulent atmosphere. Ourint was a lush world, discovered in the galactic halo called the Unknown Regions while battling the Yuuzhan Vong. Rain pelted the land, turning the bald knoll on which he landed into mush. His E-wing's skids sank several centimeters into the muck before finding purchase.
He bounded out of the cockpit and landed lightly, casting up only the smallest spattering of mud. "R7, secure the ship and send a microburst to Kam Solusar informing him I've arrived. Keep the comm system warm, I'll be checking in every two hours." The little droid tweeped its assent and closed the canopy.
Kyp turned and looked out over the misty treetops. The planet was alive, countless life forms sending a cacophany through the Force. Closing his eyes, he stretched out, sifting through each ripple in the Force, seeking that subtle nothingness that hinted at the presence of a Yuuzhan Vong warrior. They were here, he knew. It was his task to find out where and why.
He was startled out of his meditation by a gaping void. Something seemed to have torn a hole in the Force itself. This was no Yuuzhan Vong, but perhaps one of their biological weapons? Kyp knew of the ysalamiri, creatures that created a similar void in the Force. Was it possible one of the Yuuzhan Vong's war beasts had developed that talent? Kyp set out in the direction of the Force-void.
Kyp's comm. beeped. "You're right, R7. I lost track of the time. Send this: Kam, I've sensed a void in the Force, and I'm investigating. It's more like a ysalamir than a Yuuzhan Vong. This planet is pretty primitive, and filled with tropical life, so it's hard to sort out the currents. I'll keep you informed."
Wide, flat leaves heavy with rain slapped Kyp as he pushed through the jungle. A small clearing let him see a knoll to his right, similar to the one he had landed on, and he moved toward it. As he reentered the thick foliage, a sudden, devastating nothingness drove him to his knees.
"I... what is this?" Kyp panted in psychic agony. Luke had told him of the powers of ysalamiri, but he was unprepared for the dizzying sensation of having the Force violently stripped from him. He was blind, deaf, and senseless, completely unaware of the universe around him. Staggering back to the clearing, he felt the veil lift and looked up, feeling the joy of the trees as glorious rain nurtured them. He breathed in the Force deeply and regained his balance, stretching out for strength and stability as he steeled his will to enter the Force void again.
It didn't give him that luxury. Whatever it was could move, and Kyp felt the veil fall around him. He spun and ignited his lightsaber in one motion, eyes darting about the foliage searching for this thing that could so wound him. He saw only the green of the joyful trees, clapping their broad leaves in appreciation of the rain.
Protests of crushed foliage sounded behind him, but lacking precognition from the Force, he was unable to react in time. Hideous pain stabbed his leg as something punctured and then tore loose, spinning Kyp in place and launching his lightsaber into the greenery. He landed on hands and knees, and looked up into the hungry eyes of a creature in an armored shell about the girth of a probe droid, but with thick, stubby legs that ended in plate-like nails and a quivering, porcine snout flanked on each side by a tusk. The creatures left tusk dripped blood - his blood. His combat instincts ignited and he reached out for his lightsaber, but, lacking the Force, it would not come to him. The creature pawed and charged. Kyp dove and rolled, his right leg screaming its protest, and then lamely scrabbled to where he saw his lightsaber fall. He looked up as he heard creature paw again, and caught the glint of his lightsaber hilt out of the corner of his eye. He dove, rolled and came up on his knees, saber at the ready. The creature completed its charge and spun to face Kyp. Stumbling forward on his knees, Kyp swung straight down, unwilling to wait for another charge, and the smell of burned keratin filled the air. The creature had been sliced in two. With its death, the universe flooded his senses again as the Force returned to him.
Kyp closed down his lightsaber, returned it to his belt, and limped to one of the larger trees. Cupping a leaf, he grimaced as rainwater washed the mud from his gash, and then continued at a limp toward the knoll, following the summons of the Force.
At the base of the knoll, a cave had been dug and reinforced with timber. A small repulsorlift generator was rigged to create a low, invisible fence that kept the jungle at bay. Kyp deactivated it with the Force so he could gain entrance. A glowrod hung on the supporting struts, and he took it up after reactivating the repulsorlift.
The cave was simple, furnished with amenities hewn from the native wood. In the back, he discovered a large medkit. It had been well used, but still contained a fair stock of disinfectant foam and synthflesh. Kyp gingerly folded his hanging flesh over the layer of disinfectant foam he had sprayed, and then covered the whole area with a generous layer of synthflesh before collapsing on the cot and drifting into a feverish sleep.
He woke to an insistent itching in his leg - a sign that he had been asleep long enough for the synthflesh to bond to his skin. As he sat up, a faded and much-mended red leather coat slipped to the floor.
"I see you met our friendly neighborhood nryll." A woman stood across the room at a rough table, slicing some kind of vegetable.
"He's only half the bully he used to be."
"I saw that. Nrylls are territorial predators, though. With him gone, another one will come in to claim his feeding grounds. You just have to see the signs and stay clear." She turned and handed him a bowl of stewed vegetables. "Here, Kyp. This will help."
At the sound of his name, Kyp's head snapped up. He began, "Do I know..." but as he looked into her gray eyes, the waves of medium-brown hair matted about her slender neck, he knew the answer. "Callista?"
She smiled. "It's been a long time. How have you been? How's the Academy? How's..."
"Luke?" he finished for her.
They ate. Kyp said, "Luke has given up control of the Academy. Streen and Kam Solusar both help oversee it. There are always planets asking for help from a Jedi, so Luke handles many of those calls now. He's rarely gone long, though. We see him at the Academy several times a year.
"We've also finally made peace with the Empire. Admiral Pallaeon is a good man, even if he does believe in the Emperor's ideals. When he became Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet, peace wasn't far behind.
"Without the Empire, we thought the Republic's major threats were gone, but now the Yuuzhan Vong have invaded. They're not from our galaxy, and they're hard to understand. Their technology is completely organic - they despise our machines, especially droids."
"But how is Luke?" she asked.
"He's all right. He's... moved on."
She closed her eyes. At length, she nodded, her face a painful mask of resignation, but she shed no tears.
"So what brings you here?" she asked.
"The Yuuzhan Vong. We discovered this planet during the last battle, and have intelligence linking them here. We have to learn more about them - how to fight them, or how to negotiate with them, if that's possible. They're vicious, their technology is incomprehensible, and they're invisible to the Force..."
Callista snorted and a wan, private smile crossed her lips.
"You still can't feel the Force?"
She shook her head.
"Why are you here, anyway?"
She shrugged. "Same reason I'm anywhere: to find the Force again."
"But why here?"
"I learned about the nrylls from an explorer in the Outer Rim. He took it upon himself to scout new hyperspace routes in his retirement. Figured he was close enough to dying anyway that it didn't matter. I thought if I could study the nrylls - learn how they dampen the Force - perhaps I could learn why it's dampened in me."
"And?" Kyp said.
"Nothing. I've learned a great deal about the nrylls. They don't dampen the Force so much as they devour it. They're not like the ysalamiri. Ysalamiri create a Force-empty bubble to protect themselves from predators. These nrylls actually absorb the Force - ingest it like water. They'd be very dangerous to a Jedi. But about myself? I've learned nothing."
"Were the nrylls created by the Yuuzhan Vong, I wonder?"
"No," Callista said. "They're native to this world, but they might have attracted the... uh... Vong."
"Yuuzhan Vong," Kyp said. Callista shrugged, a playful smile on her face. "Have you seen Yuuzhan Vong here? Do you know where they might be hiding?"
"I haven't seen humanoids of any type on Ourint," she said. Kyp slapped his leg in frustration, and winced. "But... I think I know where they'd be hiding. I'll take you there."
"I won't be much good traveling with this leg." "I think you'll keep up fine." She rose slowly, took their bowls, and hobbled over to a makeshift sink. Kyp realized she'd been moving stiffly since he arrived.
She forced a chuckle. "Getting old, I guess."
Kyp didn't believe it.
They moved slowly through the jungle. Callista pointed out the knolls she used as landmarks, the tracks and wounded brush that revealed passage by a nryll, and various types of edible foliage. As dusk fell, they arrived under the shadow of a massive knoll.
"There," Callista said. "We'll explore it in the morning." She led Kyp back into the jungle a few paces, and they set up camp.
The next morning, Callista led him around the perimeter of the knoll, staying just out of sight in the jungle. Two thirds of the way around, a chitinous mass rose in the shadow of the knoll. It stood almost as tall as the knoll itself and half again as wide at the base. Mutilated humans patrolled the base of the fortress, each leading a leashed nryll.
"I knew it," Kyp whispered. "The Yuuzhan Vong couldn't resist the lure of a creature that can devour the Force."
"You said they don't believe in the Force."
"They don't," Kyp answered. "But they're tactically smart enough to explore some kind of counteroffensive anyway. All they need to know is Jedi can do things and these nryll can stop them."
A guard passed near them, and his nryll halted, restless. The guard considered it a moment, and then gave some slack on the leash. The creature advanced straight toward them.
"They can sense you!" Callista said.
Callista led Kyp slowly and silently back from the fortress as the guard called something to his fellows. Two joined him, then as one, they released their nrylls.
"Run!" Callista shrieked.
They crashed through the undergrowth together, Kyp following Callista's lead as best he could. He felt the disorienting veil of nothingness close around him as the Force bled away. The nrylls were getting closer. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Callista veered to the left. Disoriented as he was, Kyp could not react in time, and plunged headlong over a bluff into a rain-swollen wash. The tentatively bonded synthflesh tore loose from his wound, and blood flowed down the wash in the rain waters. Weakened from loss of blood and loss of the Force, he was unable to extricate himself from the chilly stream washing over him. He was dimly aware of a splash further upstream, and in moments Callista's sinuous arms were dragging him from the water into a hollow in the bank.
He felt a jolt of pain as she slapped more synthflesh on his leg. After giving it a few moments to bond, she hefted his lolling figure over the high bank and dragged him into the jungle. He was dimly aware of the forest floor relentlessly scratching at his back. After an eternity, the sky darkened above and he opened his eyes long enough to make out an alcove of thick foliage. The ground heaved nearby as Callista collapsed in exhaustion, and he, too, gave himself to sleep.
The voice rang in her mind - deep like the rushing of water, but devoid of menace.
She opened her eyes. Am I dreaming? A figure stepped into the alcove, dressed in the dark cloak of a Sith, but as he lowered his hood, the warmth, kindness, and wisdom in his eyes belied his dark features and clothing.
He is no Sith.
"Callista," he said again.
"Do you still desire to touch the Force?"
She sat up suddenly, head swimming. "Yes! But..."
"I am not here to train you, Callista. Djinn has already done that. Tell me, what is the Force?"
"It is the energy field that binds all living things."
"Yes." His voice washed over her, filling the small alcove and penetrating her heart with warmth as he knelt before her. She wanted this man, if that's what he was, to lead her. Train her. Strip away the gloves so she could once again plunge her weary hands into the cooling waters of the Force. "An energy field, yes. Tell me, Callista. What happens when two energy waves of the same frequency combine?"
"They amplify each other."
"Quite. And what happens if two energy waves of conflicting frequency combine?" "They create a dissonance - cancel each other out. Is there a reason you're quizzing me on basic physics?"
"Cray Mingla touched the Force in her own way - at one 'frequency' if you will. You, Callista, touch it in a different way."
Callista's eyes widened in stunned comprehension. "So when I inhabited Cray's body, our differing Force powers canceled each other out."
The dark stranger nodded once. "You, Callista, have become a dissonance in the Force."
"But I've touched the Dark Side..." she offered.
"The Dark Side is naturally more dissonant. You will never again touch the light while the dissonance remains."
He rose to leave, and she lurched forward on her knees. "What do I do? WHAT DO I DO?"
He cast a glance over his shoulder. "You have been searching the galaxy for a question. I have given you that question. You must find the answer yourself."
"Wait! Tell me more! Don't leave!" she cried, but he was enveloped by the darkening mists. Exhausted, she collapsed again on the jungle floor.
She awoke to the crackle of a small fire. Light of early morning filtered through the smoke that had gathered under the dense leaves.
"Welcome back, sleepyhead." Smiling, Kyp handed her some of the edible plants she had shown him, roasted in a leaf wrapping. She ate gratefully.
"I had the strangest dream," she said.
"You're a dissonance in the Force," Kyp replied. Her head snapped up. "It was no dream."
"What can I do about this?"
Kyp shook his head. "I don't know. But I do know I have to get inside that Yuuzhan Vong fortress, and I could really use your help."
Callista took a long, pensive bite. "All right. Sitting in the jungle isn't going to do anything for me."
They spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating what they could scavenge, recovering their strength. Once night had blanketed the jungle, they slipped out of their alcove and made their way back toward the Yuuzhan Vong fortress. Kyp led the way until the nrylls blinded his Force sensitivity, then Callista took over. She led him to the foliage skirting the fortress, and they lay in the bushes for almost an hour, watching the guards and looking for an opening.
They stealthed into the fortress when the opportunity presented itself, led by Callista's instincts. As they traveled deeper, Kyp felt his Force sensitivity return. Apparently the nrylls only patrolled the perimeter. He took the lead, weaving through a maze of passages as the Force directed him. The inside of the fortress resembled a honeycomb, each room a hexagonal cell, though furnished for different purposes.
"Wait. There," Kyp said, pointing. They slipped into one of the cell-like antechambers. Kyp turned around several times to orient himself, and then stepped up to a large growth suspended on one wall.
"What is this place?" Callista asked.
"It looks like one of their genetic labs - where they modify their creatures for new tasks. If they develop new organic weapons, ships and such, they do that here. This is the place where we'll find what they're up to."
Kyp reached toward the growth, but two crablike claws melted out of it and snapped at him. With a spin of his lightsaber, they fell to the floor, but as he approached again, two more morphed out to defend the growth.
"What is that thing?" Callista asked.
"The core brain. A sort of Yuuzhan Vong computer. I need to get in the thing to see what they're up to here."
Several minutes passed as Kyp dueled the crab-claws. Each one felled was replaced with another, making it impossible to approach the brain. Through it all, Callista stared, unseeing, at the core.
"I can get in," she said at last. Kyp stepped back to her and closed down his lightsaber. The claws, including those he'd severed, melted back into the structure.
"How?" Kyp asked, panting.
"On the Eye of Palpatine I entered the computer core and kept the ship from activating for 30 years. I can do that here, but I'll need your help."
Kyp returned his lightsaber to his belt. "What can I do?"
"You'll have to find me in the Force - through the dissonance. I can travel through you to the core."
Kyp took her hand, and reached out to touch one of the structures in the room that didn't attack. He closed his eyes and sank deep into the Force, searching - not for a void this time, but a roil of conflicting energies.
There you are.
He plunged into the turbulence, his mind straining to sift the biological from the mental. Slowly, the essence of the being called "Callista" resolved itself into two conflicting waves, one a driving yellow that he somehow recognized as Cray Mingla, the other a frosty blue. He seized the blue wave and dragged it with his mind, pulling it into himself.
Beautiful light flooded her senses! It was as if scales had fallen from her eyes and years of blindness had been healed in a single, brilliant stroke. Callista could touch the Force again! She basked in its glow for several moments before the alien strangeness through which it filtered reminded her of her purpose. She was inside the core brain, and she had a mission. Stretching out to the Force, using it to orient herself to alien surroundings, she plunged into the data banks. The brain fought her, dynamically morphing its security protocols to keep her at bay, but it was no match for her years of experience in the Eye of Palpatine and her renewed power in the Force. She plunged into the depths of its artificial mind with giddy determination. Nothing would stand in her way - she had the Force!
There - that looks like the central data unit. Their most sensitive data should be in there... Yes, they're researching the nrylls - training them as attack animals against Jedi. And they're analyzing nryll DNA, hoping to genetically modify their own creatures to combat Jedi. Genetically modify...?
A thought struck her - a desperate hope. She had to get Kyp's attention. The brain had no video display like the Eye of Palpatine - how did it communicate with users? How could she tell Kyp what she needed him to do?
Kyp woke up on the floor, Callista's - Cray's - limp body on top of him. "Callista? Did it work? How long have I been out?" She said nothing, and he saw only emptiness in her eyes
Kyp flinched as six clawed arms morphed out of the core brain. He couldn't understand why - he wasn't near it or threatening it in any way. Their movement was strange, though. It wasn't the menacing, vicious gestures of a crazed animal, but a gentle beckoning. It was if they were gesturing to him, asking something of him. He approached cautiously, but they didnt attack. As he came near, each claw gestured toward a platform in the wall. He stepped over to it, touching it, inspecting it for any threat, but found none. It seemed to be the right size for a humanoid, with a bank of instrument-like appendages above - almost as if it were an operating table. Hesitantly, he lay down on it.
Moments went by without noise, without sensation. If this is what the claws intended him to do, they took their time making it clear. He glanced over at them again. They were all waving in the opposite direction - away from the table. Still unsure, he got up and paced the direction they indicated, until he stood over Callista's body. The two claws closest to him began to stab the air emphatically, demanding he do something with the body. Finally, he understood. He picked up Callista's limp form and placed it on the operating platform. Immediately, the claws withdrew and a cowl extruded from the wall, enveloping her.
An hour went by, perhaps two, with Kyp able to do little but pace the room. Occasionally a strange thrumming would come from the cocoon encasing Callista's body, but he could sense no other signs of activity.
He reached out with the Force, once again, to insure the otherness of Callista's spirit was still present in the core. As he searched, the Force again drained away into disorienting blankness. He seized the lightsaber from his belt and slipped to the door.
In the distance, footsteps were approaching from both directions down the hall. The Yuuzhan Vong had cornered their prey. The violent emptiness in the Force told him they had nyrlls with them, so he would have to make his escape without his Jedi powers. He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder at Calllista's cocoon, but knew her best chance was for him to survive now, and rescue later. He bolted down the hall.
The Yuuzhan Vong were on him in an instant, and his lightsaber blazed to life. The vibrant blade flashed as the first wave of nyrlls charged, and they fell at his feet, smoldering. Insectoid blasters fired at him, and he rolled out of the way. Charging, he flailed his lightsaber wildly. A few of the Yuuzhan Vong fell, but without guidance from the Force, most escaped. It was enough. He wove through the chitinous halls at a breakneck pace, and dove into the cover of the jungle.
Kyp elbow-walked under some dense foliage, and stilled his breathing, hoping to evade his pursuers. The hunt went on until nightfall, with Kyp not daring to move. As a bright moon rose, some commotion near the fortress drew the hunters away. The guards nearest the entrance were thrown outward by a sudden blast, and a lithe silhouette raced into the night. It was shorter than most of the Yuuzhan Vong, and female. Callista.
She stopped in front of the fortress for a heartbeat, as if searching for direction, as the guards closed in. Then, her sun-yellow lightsaber blade pierced the night and she carved a path through the Yuuzhan Vong straight in Kyp's direction. He lit his own lightsaber and cut his way out of the foliage to meet her.
"Callista! Here!" She skidded to a halt beside him. "What happened?"
"No time," she panted. "Run!"
She led him recklessly but confidently through the jungle, occasionally spinning to kill a pursuing nryll. Kyp ignored the biting pain in his leg and willed himself to keep up. Within the hour, they collapsed on the floor of Callista's cave.
"What happened back there?" Kyp asked when he caught his breath.
"You were right. The Yuuzhan Vong are studying the nryll. They're trying to discover how they absorb the Force, so they can incorporate those genes in their war creatures."
"But what happened to you?"
"Their genetic technology is incredible, Kyp. They can toy with DNA like a child with a puzzle. I realized in the brain core that I could use that technology for myself - I could remake Cray's body to be my own, so I no longer create a dissonance in the Force. The process had begun naturally, which is why my eyes turned gray and that stiffness was growing in my joints, but with their technology I completed it. I'm me again, Kyp! I'm a Jedi!"
Kyp shined a glowrod on her, and saw that indeed all traces of Cray Mingla's body were gone. The face was now distinctly and completely Callista's. But her eyes had become an icy blue.
"I've got to notify Kam Solusar. We have to stop the Yuuzhan Vong's experiments. Where's my commlink?"
"Better yet, let's tell him in person. They'll find us before the night is out. You have a ship?
"Yes. Let's go."
"Understood. Good work, Kyp," the tiny holographic figure of Kam Solusar said.
"I'm in orbit now, and I don't detect any Yuuzhan Vong ships. We'll wait here for your reinforcements," Kyp replied.
"No need, Kyp. You've done your duty. Come rest, and let the younger knights learn through this. And who's 'we'?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. All right, I'm coming home."
Kyp set his E-wing down near the great temple on Yavin 4 a few days later.
"Luke's here," he said.
"I know," Callista said. "I can feel him." She leapt lightly out of the cockpit and jogged toward the temple. As she neared it, the familiar figure of Luke Skywalker stepped into the sunlight. She broke into a run, and tackled him with a crushing hug.
"Luke! I did it! I can feel the Force again!"
"Callista..." Luke said, stunned. He stepped away, looking her up and down. "I... I'm so happy for you."
At that moment, a redheaded woman stepped up from behind Luke.
"Uh, Callista - I believe you've met my wife, Mara Jade?"
Callista watched the sunset from atop the great temple. The tears still hadn't stopped. She felt the vibrant life of the jungle all around her, touching it through the Force, but the one life she longed to touch deeply and intimately now belonged to another. Perhaps she shouldn't have left. Perhaps she could have stayed with Luke as he had begged her, holding on to the faith that the day she could touch the Force again would come. Perhaps...
A light footstep shook her from her reverie.
He sat down beside her, looking into the sunset. Neither spoke for some time.
"I'm sorry, Callista. I wish I could have warned you."
"No, Kyp. It was better this way. But now... I have found the Force again, but lost Luke forever. All I have worked for these past years is over. What do I do?"
He slipped his arm around her. "You'll find a path, Callista. The Force will guide us."
She sank into his embrace and leaned her head on his shoulder.