Chapter 56: The Empire continued to exact a dreadful revenge.

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She heaved the steering column back and transferred every drop of power from the shields to the engines.

The Nova flipped upward as it passed under the lip of the fissure.

Someone screamed behind Ella's seat. Chip's hands were shaking uncontrollably. Salpantor was whining, his hair whiter than before.

The light died, lost to the darkness of the underground.

But a second later, fresh sunlight shone down from above as the Nova raced skywards.

"T-there's a way through!" Cor mumbled, before breaking out into uncontrollable chirping laughter.

"Yeah. But it's tight!" Ella said. "Hal? Hal you there?"

"I-I think so. Where are we?"

"Never mind that. The TIEs will have to follow us in. If they don't they've probably crashed. They will be easy targets now they won't have room to move around. Nail them before we reach the top of the stack."

Ella concentrated on the narrow lane that rose to the open sky. She had taken this path on her speeder bike several times, delighting how Tayre had always taken the longer way around or how she had lost her escorts by such a route. But that was on a bike. This was the Nova.

The stack closed in on all sides. Ella made minute adjustments to the steering column, turning the ship by single degrees to avoid outcroppings and to take advantage of sudden openings.

"One of them is behind us!" Hal commented.

"Well you know what to do!" Ella snarled.

"Thump-thump-thump!"

"I've clipped him!" Hal screamed. "He's lost control! He's gone!"

The vibration of an explosion deep in the stack chased them upward.

Ella didn't make a sound. The blue sky was nearing, yet the stack was narrowing–

She made a final adjustment as the pressure wave from the TIE's death throws shook the ship in the confined space.

The Nova burst into the open blue sky.

"Aha-ha-ha!" Ella let out a scream of adrenaline-filled joy. Salpantor howled loud enough to make Cor put her wings over her ears and Chip took several seconds of blank staring as his enhancements tried to compute the near-impossible. Finally, the cyborg spoke in his dry, flat tone:

"The next time I fly with you, Princess Ella Malquet, remind me to fit a new emotional inhibitor chip." He tapped the enhancement on his left temple. "This one's been overloaded."

Ella looked over the horizon, scouting for any more TIEs.

And her elation died.

The Onslaught was high above the palace now, approaching the stratosphere. The swathes of black smoke that poured off the ship's triangular hull remained undimmed. Sunlight caught a million glittering objects that fell from the crippled ship: metallic debris that had peeled off due to the heat.

The palace itself was in no better shape. Numerous fires raged around its central dome. And in the city beyond the Empire continued to exact a dreadful revenge.

Without thinking, Ella transferred power back to the shields and maintained her course, heading toward the atmosphere.

"I'm picking up signals," Chip said soberly. "They're repeating. It's not good, Ella. Shall Sal put them on?"

She found herself nodding dumbly, unsure of what to do now.

The wookie opened the receiving channel.

"Due to the actions of this planet's leadership," Sarn's voice spoke, "I have decided upon a collective punishment that will make Alderaan's demise a dreamed of mercy. I have given the order that the Onslaught will vent its hyperdrive when it reaches the upper atmosphere. The planet Farsalt will suffer a slow death as its biosphere will degrade over the coming years. For the people of this world, you have only your leaders to blame."

The message started again, only for Salpantor to switch it off in anger. He looked into Ella's face and she perceived a great look of sympathy in his eyes.

"S-surely he's lying?" Ella said. "Venting a hyperdrive's engines in an atmosphere wouldn't cause so much damage . . . would it?"

Chip shook his head. "The ion cannon interfered with the Onslaught's power distribution. There were reports that the hyperdrive was overloading. If that's true, then the amount of energy involved in such a technology, and the temperature of its plasmas . . ." his voice faded.

"H-he can't!" Ella said. "He just can't! That's murder."

Her companions' silence told her that she was wrong.

"Open a channel to the Assassin!" she snapped. "I want to speak to Sarn. Now."

Salpantor reached for the communications control.

"We will be in orbit in less than a minute," Cor said softly. "You have a chance to escape Ella. I think it's what your father would want."

"Then if necessary you can throw me in an escape pod! I will not abandon my people. I won't!"

The communicator bleeped an acknowledgement.

"Commodore Sarn?" Ella said bitterly. "Are you there, Commodore?"

Silence.

"Commodore Sarn?"

"Well well, Princess Ella Malquet herself. Not quite the mad fool you pretended to be, are you? Perhaps better for your people if you had been, however." Sarn's condescending tone made her soul bleed. "I suppose you intend to plead for your planet? Perhaps to offer yourself in exchange for my mercy?"

Cor shook her head. "You can't!" she whispered.

"If that is your price, Commodore. I will do it. I will surrender myself to you if the Onslaught leaves orbit without venting its hyperdrive in our atmosphere."

Silence.

A proximity sensor alerted them to the approach of eight TIEs.

"They will be on us in two minutes," Chip said. "If we delay then we won't get away."

"Well Commodore?" Ella said, pointedly ignoring the cyborg. "What is your decision? Is my blood enough for my people?"

"No," Sarn replied. "You see, I already have your blood. Here." The sound of someone falling to their knees made Ella's heart freeze. "Speak to her," Sarn ordered. "Speak to your daughter, Queen Myr."

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Well Ella now faces a true dilemma now doesn't she? Should she flee, or turn herself in to save her adoptive mother?

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