*** Starting out as a distant echo in the back of her mind, the pinging of the proximity alarm grew louder as Mara gradually awoke. A brief glance at the navicomputer showed that she had come to just in time. She pushed the hyperdrive levers forward, and her Z-95 Headhunter dropped out of lightspeed. She looked up in time to see starlines shorten into pinpricks of light, and the planet Sacrota seemingly jump out at her from the blackness of space. She reached for the comm, but a wave of nausea overtook her. She sat back and reached inward with the Force to calm her stomach. When she recovered from the dizziness, she keyed the comm and got clearance to land. Aves had set up his headquarters in Ivin City, one of the larger ones on Sacrota. Sacrota was one of the borderline worlds. Technically, it was still aligned with the Empire, but in recent years, it had been ignored. The Imperial Governor of the planet was more interested in his own economic ventures than ruling, and left the actual duties of office to local governments. The result was a planet where the New Republic had no authority and standard Imperial policy was never enforced. And the population had no desire to change it. It also made an attractive capitol for a smuggling organization, provided one could work around local ordinances. So far, Aves was the only one to successfully do so. Mara set her Z-95 down at a landing pad on the edge on Ivin City. She would have preferred to land at the main starport near the center of town, but only large freighters and passenger liners were permitted there. Mara climbed out of the fighter and flagged down a landspeeder. At the front desk of the Bronkin Hotel, Mara surveyed her surroundings while waiting for service. It was a rather elegant hotel, considering that it was actually Aves' front for his smuggling business on Sacrota. The long central hall was lined on both sides by ornate columns that supported the second level walkways. A fountain was in the center, and various plants were scattered about. "May I help you?" "Yes, I am interested in a room for the night." "Certainly. I'll get the forms." Mara filled out the forms, using a false name. The clerk took them and began filling out his part. "By the way, do you offer room service?" Mara casually asked. "Yes, we do," the clerk replied, not looking up from the forms. "Do you know if you have Bruallki on the menu?" "I don't think so." "That's funny. I heard that you had the best in this sector." The clerk looked up with a curious glare. "Perhaps you have us confused with the Akkin Inn on the other side of town?" "No, a friend told me over a card game that this was the place." "Then perhaps he was mistaken." "Could be, but he seldom has his information wrong." "I see," the clerk replied, his face revealing more than his words. "If you would like to leave a request for the management, perhaps a special arrangement can be made." "That would be fine." Mara wrote a brief message and handed it to him. He gave her the keycard to her room and paged a bellhop to guide her. He then disappeared into the back offices. Mara settled in to wait for Aves to contact her. She opened the blinds, only to find the view was blocked by a large tree. Sitting on the bed, she proceeded to unpack the few things she had brought with her. First thing I tell Aves, Mara told herself, is to get a new clerk. Or at least teach that one how not to give away a recognition code. She laid back on the bed, but an intercom ping had her back up immediately. She pressed the button. "Excuse me, madam, but the manager would like to talk with you regarding a note you left for him." "That's fine. Where do I meet him?" "There's someone waiting outside to take you to him." She was taken from her second floor room to a conference room on the ground level. The bellhop knocked on the door with a subtle pattern, and the door was opened from the inside. The door closed behind Mara as she entered the room. "Welcome, Mara. It's about time you gave us a visit," Aves said. He had been waiting beside the door. "Nice to see you too, Aves. From the look of this place, one might think smuggling is a front for your hotel business." "I'm all set up if I ever decide to get out of the smuggling business, that's for sure. So what's the news from Karrde?" "Well, I haven't met with him recently." "I'm sorry. I had assumed..." "Actually, that's one of the reasons I'm here. I missed a meeting with him, and I was wondering if Ghent might have figured out a way to contact him. Is Ghent still here with your group?" "Yeah, he's still here. In fact, he's been designing our security systems. I told him to create a system that he can't slice. He hasn't succeeded yet, but he really seems to enjoy the challenge." "He would." "I'll see if he can help. Why did you miss the meeting, anyway?" "Something came up." "Something more important than meeting with Karrde?" "Yes. Let's leave it at that for now." "Fine by me." "I also want you to contact the rest of the smugglers' alliance. Something big is going on, and the New Republic needs all the information we can give it." "Just a minute, Mara. We don't just 'give' information. You know that. Does this have something to do with the Imperial attack on Kessel?" "Kessel was attacked?" "The details aren't readily available. They did a better than usual job of cutting off the spread of news at the source. But there's no way to keep smugglers from knowing that Kessel has been hit." "Well, I wasn't talking about any Imperial attack. This is something much bigger," "Just how big is this?" "Very big. A madman is on the loose with a weapon that can destroy stars." "So that's what happened to Carida and the Cauldron Nebula..." "You mean it's been used!?" "You must have been really preoccupied. It's been all over the holonet for the past week." "I spent most of the time in hyperspace. I had no idea." "Shouldn't you have felt it? I mean, you are a Jedi now." "Watch your mouth, Aves. Besides, like I said, I had other concerns at the time. But now, I want any information we can get on this sent straight to the New Republic. No delays. Got it?" "All right. In this case, I'll make an exception. I'm still not siding with the Republic, mind you. I just don't like the idea of someone going around blowing up entire star systems. I can't speak for the other smuggling groups, though." "Just tell them. I'll see to it that everyone is paid, but there's no time now to wait for transactions to be negotiated." "I understand. It will take a while to contact everyone, but I'll get my men right on it. Let's go talk to Ghent. I assume you're in a hurry to leave." "Actually, I had planned on spending the night here. A Z-95 isn't a very comfortable place to sleep. Besides, I wasn't feeling too well earlier. Probably something in the air at Yavin." "Where are you docked?" "Platform R-21 on the east end of town. Why?" "I can have it moved to my private hangar. Believe me, you don't want to leave it out in the open in that area." "All right. Go ahead." "I'll drop you off with Ghent, then I'll go and get everything taken care of. Perhaps you'll join us for dinner later?" "Perhaps. What are you serving?" "Bruallki, of course. We have the best in the sector, you know."
*** They found Ghent in a cramped, dark room full of electronic equipment. He was so busy working at his terminal that he hardly noticed he had company. Aves quickly left to take care of other business. "Aves tells me that you're trying to outsmart yourself. Any luck yet?" "Not yet," Ghent replied, turning around for the first time. "Hey, Mara! I didn't know you were here!" "I came to ask you for a favor." "Sure, anything you want." "I need to contact Talon Karrde. Do you think you can do it?" Ghent thought for a while. "I can try, but I'm not sure if I can. He's hidden himself away so well that I have no idea where to start. I tried to find him once, but then Aves started me on this security system, and I haven't done anything else since. Maybe you could give me a lead?" "All I know is that I was supposed to meet him a week ago at Darev Spaceport on Kurnas. But I'm sure he's nowhere near it now." "It will probably take at least three days, probably longer, to find him from a cold start. And Aves really wants me to finish this system soon. But I'll give it a shot." "You're the best chance I've got. Thanks, Ghent." "No problem."
*** By the time Mara returned to her room, three smuggling groups had been contacted. Aves convinced two of them to cooperate in the hunt for the Sun Crusher, and the third was still considering it. Ghent was still working on finding Karrde, breaking only for dinner. She realized as she lay in bed that he would probably be up all night working at his terminal. A brief pang of guilt was quickly quenched when she reminded herself that he was doing what he liked to do best. She hadn't intended to go to sleep just yet. Just lay down for a while then go back to Aves and try to contact more groups. She figured that her mind was too full of worries to sleep this night. But sleep gradually overcame her. She awoke suddenly with a sense of danger. She searched her dark room first with her eyes, then through the Force, but detected nothing concrete. The danger sense, however, was still there. She got out of bed, only to fall back again as the nausea returned. She took a few minutes concentrating on the Force to ease her discomfort before getting up again. She called on the Force again to scan for threats outside her room and found them: in the Main Hall, ground level, three men approaching with a prisoner. And from their frame of mind, she could deduce... "Stormtroopers!" she whispered to herself. She quickly grabbed her lightsaber and blaster and went to the door. She stood behind the wall with her blaster raised as she pressed the control to open the door. Nothing happened. She tried it again, but with no effect. She cursed silently. "Lights!" Just as she expected, the power was out. She returned to the door, trying to open it with her bare hands. Locked. She began aiming her small blaster at where she guessed the lock was, then stopped just before squeezing the trigger. Too much noise, she scolded herself. She holstered the blaster and took up the lightsaber. With a snap-hiss a little too loud for her liking, the saber came to life. Taking care not to let the tip of the shimmering blue-white blade poke through the other side of the door, she made several slices along the opening side of the sliding door. Mara extinguished the saber and pulled the door open. After a quick look to see if the hallway was clear, she carefully stepped out and headed for the nearest balcony that overlooked the Main Hall. When she got there, she laid out flat on her stomach and crept up to the edge. A group of three Imperial Stormtroopers were marching on her side of the hall, heading for the hotel's entrance. Though there was little light, the troopers' white armor made them easy enough to see. The prisoner with them was another matter. Mara concentrated, using her Jedi skills to enhance her vision. Finally, she made out enough detail to identify him as Ghent. Mara quickly formulated a plan of action. Cautiously, she pulled back away from the railed edge of the overhang, just out of sight of the stormtroopers, and pulled herself up into a crouch. She drew her blaster at first, then reconsidered. Holstering the gun, she took up her lightsaber, grasping it with its emitter matrix pointing down. Slowly, she crawled toward the edge until she could see the tops of the approaching stormtroopers' heads. She began concentrating on the Force when they were almost directly under her.
*** One moment, the Imperial stormtroopers had their prisoner in the center of their triangular formation. The next, he flashed off to the side, as if something had physically shoved him toward the wall. Two troopers drew their blasters, and the other chased after Ghent in what he thought was an escape attempt. In the instant of confusion, Mara struck. Once Ghent was out of the way, Mara leapt the rail and ignited her lightsaber on the way down. The last thing the stormtrooper saw was a flash of blue light before Mara drove the downward pointing light blade through his head. Once on the ground, Mara quickly twisted around, slashing a second trooper in the abdomen with the saber. He uttered a helmet-muffled shout of pain as he collapsed to the floor. The stormtroopers hadn't even had time to snap off a blaster bolt. Mara stood up and charged at the remaining Imperial. He had been heading for Ghent, who now lay against the wall, but now he was fumbling in the dark to raise his blaster rifle and fight off the mysterious attacker. But Mara got to him first. By the time she reached him, she had flipped the saber around in her hand. With a running approach, she drove the blade through the trooper's white armored middrift all the way to the saber handle. A good yank, and the saber flashed through the upper parts of his body. After the clatter of the trooper's body hitting the ground and the rattle of the helmet halves rolling on the floor had subsided, the only remaining sounds were the hum of the lightsaber and Mara's heavy breathing. After a quick look around, she shut down the saber and headed for Ghent. She found him laying unconscious with a bleeding cut and lump on his forehead. She finally succeeded in shaking him awake after a long and, at times, seemingly hopeless effort. The dazed slicer groaned and put his hand on his throbbing head. "Shh! Be quiet!" "Huh? What's going on?" "I killed the stormtroopers that were trying to kidnap you, but there are probably more," Mara replied in a whisper. Ghent couldn't see very well, but he could feel the dampness of his blood on his fingers. "Mara! I think they got me in the head!" "Quiet!" Mara hissed urgently. "No they didn't. It's my fault. I shoved you too hard. Sorry." "I was wondering what that was. I'm walking with strormtroopers one minute and meeting the wall the next. But I guess I owe you for saving me." "Forget it. Can you get up? We've got to get out of here." "Yeah, I think so," Ghent replied, as he woozily got to his feet. "We'd better not go through the front, though. That's where they were taking me, so there might be more out there." "Exactly what I was thinking," Mara said. "You know of any other ways out that the Imperials don't?" "Uhhh... yes. There's a service elevator near Aves' room that they might not know about." "Then we'll try that. Let's go. And keep quiet." Mara supported the dizzy Ghent for a while until he regained his balance. Carefully, they made their way along the wall toward the hallway leading to Aves' quarters. Just before they got there, Mara's danger sense flashed again. She quickly covered Ghent's mouth and pulled him behind a column, out of the line of sight of the stormtroopers exiting the hallway into the Main Hall. "Shh! Stay hidden. And quiet!" Mara whispered almost inaudibly to Ghent. Slowly she peeked at the troopers that had just passed. Six stormtroopers with a prisoner. Probably Aves, she guessed. Six armed and ready stormtroopers were a bit much for one half-trained Jedi with a lightsaber, but she had the element of surprise, and they had made the mistake of turning their backs on her. Quickly, silently, she came at them from behind. The trailing pair of troopers were taken down by a single stroke of the lightsaber through their backs, not being able to turn around quick enough after hearing the snap-hiss of the saber's ignition. The next pair fell almost as quickly, as Mara first sliced across their blaster rifles, then across their chests. But the easy part was over. The remaining two troopers were now fully aware and ready for her. One stormtrooper had grabbed Aves and was using him as a human shield to ward off a lightsaber attack. The other brought up his blaster and commenced firing red energy blasts at Mara. Mara dove and rolled away from the first blasts, then raised her saber and drew upon the Force to deflect the next ones while she headed toward the cover of a nearby column. Just before reaching it, one of the deflected blasts caught the trooper, laying him out on the ornately tiled floor with a bright flash. Luke can't tell me there's no such thing as luck, Mara thought. She turned to look for the last Imperial when she felt a flicker of warning through the Force, and dove behind the column just in time to evade the blue flash of a stun discharge. Still holding Aves, the last stormtrooper stood in the open, keeping Mara pinned behind the column with his stun bursts. Mara took quick glimpses in his direction between shots, trying to find an opening to act. On one peek, she noticed the blaster rifle of a downed trooper lying near where he stood. Mara quickly considered the feasibility of using her Jedi skills to fling the weapon at the trooper, at least to trip him and possibly allow Aves to escape. She took another look, to see that the stormtrooper had started moving again in the direction of the front doors. She ducked back to evade his shot, and prepared to make her move. Clearing her mind, she focused on the shape of the blaster. She poked her head out to see where to throw it, only to catch, out of the corner of her eye, the stormtrooper tripping. She had come out from cover and was charging him when he snapped off another shot in her direction. She ducked under it and headed back to the column. Just before she got there, she felt a jolt in her lower right leg, which collapsed on its next step. Mara hit the floor hard enough to see stars, but she had managed to slide far enough to pull herself behind cover. Back to peeking again, Mara saw Aves lying on the floor, not moving at all. The stormtrooper tried to get him back up, but it was obvious that he couldn't carry the limp body and fight effectively at the same time. Instead, he picked up the nearby blaster and opened up with both of them on stun. He was also moving closer, trying to get a better angle on her. Mara drew her blaster. From the way the trooper had been approaching, it was probable that he didn't think she had anything other than the lightsaber. But it didn't make much difference. He knew she was temporarily crippled. Mara moved around the column, being sure to keep it between her and the Imperial. She knew her ankle must be at least twisted, and probably broken, but she couldn't feel anything from her knee down. She had propped herself up on her left knee, leaning against the column. She knew she couldn't move quick enough to take potshots at him without a distraction. But what could distract him? Her peripheral vision caught what looked like a face behind another column. Then she remembered: Ghent was still there, and he seemed to be a bit anxious. Perfect. "Ghent!" Mara shouted. "What?" he shouted back softly. "Stay where you are!" "I am - Whoa!" Ghent yelped as the stormtrooper's stun bursts almost hit him. It was all the time Mara needed. She squeezed her trigger three times, hitting the half-turned stormtrooper twice. With her blaster back in its holster, she pulled herself up onto her good foot, and hopped around the column, only to see a shadowy figure standing three meters away. She whipped out her blaster... "Hold it, Mara! It's me!" Aves said with his hands raised. "Aves! I thought you were out cold!" Mara replied, lowering her blaster. "Fooled you too, huh? We'd better get to the hangar and off planet before reinforcements arrive. Ghent, get over here!" "They're sure to have the hotel's hangar guarded," Mara pointed out. "Yes, but not my private hangar." "I assume you have a secret passage to get there?" "Would I be worth my credits as a smuggler if I didn't?" Aves responded, and pressed on an indistinguishable spot on the column Mara was leaning against. A door slid open, revealing a shaft with a ladder running through the column. "Great. All this time, I was standing in front of a hidden door and didn't know it," Mara mumbled. "What are we going to do?" asked Ghent, who had just arrived. "We're leaving," Aves informed him. "But Mara's hurt." "I can make it down fine, but I will need someone to lean on after that. We'll worry about it later. Come on!"
*** The reinforcements arrived, finding only the nine fallen stormtroopers. "Sir, preliminary analysis indicates that two were killed by blaster fire," the squad leader reported to the Star Destroyer Relentless. "What of the others?" Captain Dorja replied. "The other seven suffered from severe lacerations that were already cauterized when we found them." "Any clues as to what could have happened?" Dorja responded. There's something familiar about this, he thought. "One of our men was still alive when we found him, sir. He said something about a Jedi woman. At least, that's what it sounded like. I have nothing else to verify this, except that the wounds do appear consistent with lightsaber cuts." "Blast! All right, secure the area, and let me know if anything new develops. Relentless out." Captain Dorja checked the status of his other forces, then headed for his personal computer terminal. Acting on a hunch, he began checking against Grand Admiral Thrawn's most wanted list.
*** To Mara's surprise, she found her Z-95 parked in Aves' hangar, right next to his personal light freighter, Tach's Evader. Not only that, but it was already warmed up and ready to fly. She hadn't planned on flying it out, especially with the numbness in her leg, and the likelihood of extreme pain once it wore off. But hearing about the Star Destroyer in orbit changed her mind. Though Aves advised against it, she insisted, and he helped her hobble over to it and climb in before he boarded his own ship.
*** Though they didn't know where the secret hangar was, the Imperials obviously expected its existence. Aves freighter and Mara's Headhunter escaped Sacrota's atmosphere to find the Star Destroyer bearing down on them from a distance, and a large group of assault gunboats waiting for them. Aves' gunners were ready for the first wave of gunboats. The Imperial fighters strafed the freighter with ion cannon fire as they made their pass, disabling several small portions of the ship's electronic systems. One gunboat was blown into oblivion by a direct hit from the Evader's turbolasers. The second wave was nearing firing range when suddenly the flight leader's craft burst into a fireball and Mara's Z-95 flashed up through the formation. The remaining gunboats veered off of their trajectory reflexively to evade the attacker. "Mara, can you keep that second wave busy for a while? We have all we can handle already." "What did you think I was doing? Polishing my nails?" Mara replied, as she brought one of the scattered gunboats into her sight. The pilot tried to evade, but Mara was too quick for him. She kept with him until his shields failed and his hull ruptured under the heat of her laser bursts. "Seriously, though, get a hyperspace jump calculated and get out of here. I've got my hunk-of-junk navicomputer working on one, but there's no reason for you to stick around. You're the one they want." Mara shoved the Headhunter into a dive as a blue ion burst flashed past her canopy. Another one flashed past, and she realized they wanted her alive as well. Well, she thought, they're going to have to try harder than that. She twisted around to bring her lasers to bear on the gunboat that had been firing on her. "Don't shoot at ME if you like living!" she muttered to herself as she flamed it. A glance to her targeting computer showed that there were no more gunboats in firing range of her. But it was no relief. It just meant that while she was exacting vengeance, the rest had resumed their attack on the Evader. She cursed herself, and headed back toward Aves. She felt the feelings coming back into her leg, and with it the pain from her injured ankle. But she purged the thought from her mind. Two of the Evader's four turbolasers had been disabled, and sections of the freighter were visibly without power. However, it was still moving, ever closer to the point just outside of Sacrota's gravity well where its hyperdrive motivators could kick in. But the Imperial pilots knew it, and began concentrating on the smuggling ship's engines. "Mara!" Aves called into the comm. "We need some help here!" "I'm on my way. Just hang in there." "Easy for her to say," Aves muttered. "Ghent, how are you doing with reactivating the disabled systems?" "Well, the lights are back on in the front section of deck 3," Ghent's voice said over the staticy intercom. "But I don't know about anything else." "Ghent, forget the blasted lights! I want those turbolasers back up!" "Uh, yes, sir. Right away."
*** The active turbolasers had managed to take out another gunboat, but the others were swarming toward the freighter's engines, along a flight path that kept them mostly out of the turrets' lines of fire. One of the Evader's four engines was already out, and another was operating at only a quarter of its maximum power. Another ion hit, and it went cold. The gunboats were shifting fire to the next engine when the Z-95 burst through the formation head-on, scattering them again. "Thanks, Mara. We're just about ready to jump. Just hold them for a few more seconds." "Will do." Mara stayed relatively close to the Evader, firing at any gunboat that came near. Not to kill them as much as to drive them off. At some point, one of the freighter's disabled turbos came on-line again, and took out a gunboat that had tried attacking the Headhunter using that section of the freighter as cover, thinking it was still disarmed. For a few seconds, there were no attack runs at all. Then Mara realized: they were forming up for a mass charge at the Evader, and she was in the middle. And they knew it. "Aves, they're coming, and I don't think I can stop them." "Get clear, Mara! We're going to hyperspace. Is your course ready?" "Yes," Mara said after a quick glance at her navicomputer readout. "As soon as you go, I'm out of here." "See you later." Mara jerked her fighter out of the gunboats' flight path just before their ion bursts cut through the space she had been in. She looked just in time to see the Evader disappear into hyperspace ahead of the ion cannon fire. She was about to pull her own hyperspace levers when a blue flash caught her starboard wingtip. The laser cannon was covered with scrambled electrical discharge. More blue bolts came toward her, and she jerked the Z-95 harder than ever just in time. When she got over the brief blackout, she saw the gunboats coming at her again. She prepared to dodge again, but was blinded by a blue flash that encompassed the entire fighter. All her instruments were dead, and controls did nothing. Outside, she could see the gunboats breaking off their attack. Then she saw the Star Destroyer. She had gotten within range of its ion cannons without realizing it. The gunboats set up a perimeter around her, and the Star Destroyer came closer. Mara tried frantically to come up with a plan. She had taken off in such a hurry that she had forgotten to put on her flight suit, which probably explained the blackout. But now, it meant that unless she got picked up soon, she wouldn't survive for long in the disabled Headhunter. And if that wasn't bad enough, the pain in her right leg was growing. She saw a Lambda-class shuttle approaching, and with it, a chance at escape. Concentrating on the Force, she tried to determine how many people were on it. But it was strangely dark, and a shiver went up her spine as a feeling of deja vu hit her. Such a familiar feeling... "Ysalamiri!" Mara exclaimed aloud, as the shuttle clamped onto her fighter with a clang and started heading for the Star Destroyer. A feeling of total helplessness and panic came over her that was subdued only by the gas that was pumped into her cockpit from the shuttle.