Leia was almost asleep when the beeping from her private comm broke the silence. She groaned and rubbed her eyes as she rolled over to press the receive button. In her mind appeared a multitude of choice statements to tell whoever it was that had interrupted her after she had left explicit instructions not to be disturbed for anything short of imminent planetary destruction. She slapped the comm hard, then pressed the button deliberately and forcefully when it didn't respond to the initial impact.
"What do you want?" she shouted into the comm.
"Whoa, Leia! Sorry to catch you in a bad mood! I'll call back some other time," came the voice of her husband.
"Han!? No, wait! Don't go!" she pleaded.
"Well, all right. Look, I know it's late, but I've been trying to get a hold of you all day, and you were never there."
"It's been a rough day."
"You need to get some sleep, then. I'll keep it short. Luke wanted me to ask you if any information on the Sun Crusher has come in from the Smuggler's Alliance."
"No, none that I'm aware of."
"Oh," Han replied, obviously disappointed. "Well, if anything comes in, let us know, okay? By the way, have you heard anything from Mara recently?"
"No... Should I have?"
"I guess not. Just thought I'd check, in case Luke asks."
"Wait a minute. Where is Luke?"
"Don't worry, he's here. He's just busy doing some Jedi stuff to try to find Kyp. Sitting on the hologame table meditating or something. Hasn't had much success yet, though. Personally, I don't see why he bothers. What we really need is a good, solid lead to follow."
"The most recent sighting I know about was at Toskanus a couple weeks ago. You may want to contact senator Bel Iblis. I've put him in charge of coordinating all intelligence on the Sun Crusher."
"Toskanus? You sure? Luke insists Kyp hasn't blown up anything since we've been looking for him. Said he'd feel a disturbance in the Force if he did."
"But he didn't destroy the Toskanus system. He just stopped there for some reason. I don't know what exactly he did there, though."
"All right, we'll check it out."
"Is there anything else you needed?"
"Well... is Chewie up and around?"
"Up, yes, but he's not here right now. He took Threepio down to the command center to help plan for the Maw mission. Chewbacca insists on being there to free the Wookies. They're leaving tomorrow."
"That's right. I forgot. Yeah, with the Sun Crusher loose, now is definitely not the time for more surprises to be coming out of there. Will you and the kids be okay without them?"
"Of course we will. Han, I love you."
"I love you too. Now get some sleep. I'll call again in a few days, when we get to Toskanus."
"Be careful Han! And that goes for Luke, too. And may the Force be with you."
"You, too," Solo said before shutting down the connection.
She lay on her back, a tear forming in her eye. It just wasn't fair. She wanted Han to come home, but knew he couldn't. In fact, there were many things she wanted that she knew well enough she couldn't possibly have, but that didn't make it any easier. Life, indeed, was not fair.
Captain Pellaeon stood on the bridge of the Star Destroyer Chimaera, taking in the sights of the vast starport facilities that made up the secret Enigma Base, deep inside the Unknown Region. It always brought a smile to Pellaeon's face when he considered that this area was still regarded as dangerous and "unknown" by the rest of the Galaxy, but not to his fleet. No, Thrawn's fleet, he reminded himself.
Some time after Rukh's attack on Thrawn, Pellaeon managed to access some of his personal files, and found that, among other things, the Grand Admiral knew considerably more about the Unknown Region than anyone could have possibly expected. Only natural, since he had spent years there before finding Pellaeon and reorganizing the fleet in the first place.
Thrawn's records indicated a large alien starport in the "Trynll" system, which he had once assaulted. The latest data showed the population reduced to a primitive technology level, but the orbital starport facilities themselves in remarkably good condition, as Thrawn had used only ion cannons to facilitate easy boarding and study of them.
When Pellaeon retreated the fleet to the Unknown Region after the disastrous battle of Bilbringi, he sent scouts to investigate the system, who found it exactly as Thrawn had left it. Pellaeon moved the fleet there without hesitation, and immediately started the refurbishment of the starport.
The native population of the planet Trynll proved to be capable slaves, and in some cases, actually eager to return to the high-tech surroundings of the station to escape the harsh drudgery of life on-planet, a life made even harsher by the Imperial overseers who were assigned management of the planet's agricultural affairs to feed the fleet. The population was completely subjugated to Imperial rule for, unlike the Noghri, Pellaeon was taking no chances with the Trynllians, and had successfully convinced Thrawn to do likewise, once he was back in command.
During the power vacuum in Imperial command after the Bilbringi retreat, Pellaeon had taken advantage of the mass confusion to raid several shipyards and "appropriate" orbital drydocks and construction slips, and even an entire factory station for TIE fighter production from upstart factions that had arisen to take Thrawn's place.
Each raid tied up at least three of his Imperial Star Destroyers for a minimum of two weeks, and involved careful planning to effectively frame appropriate Core warlords for the thefts. In one instance, it actually succeeded in starting a conflict. But since the Stormhawk, Relentless, and Nemesis had made off with a drydock containing that particular warlord's only semi-operational Star Destroyer, it was a very brief one.
Towing the plunder into hyperspace with several ships was another tricky proposition that took careful coordination. The theft of the factory station had been almost fatal for the Inexorable when its tow cables were torn out due to a minuscule hyperspace miscalculation. Fortunately, the other four Star Destroyers towing it managed to finish the job, but the Inexorable was down for four months of repairs, and still had occasional mechanical difficulties.
The stolen facilities were gradually built into the 16 by 32 kilometer Enigma Base, as he had dubbed it. The most recent construction and repair update Pellaeon had read put the docking capacity at 100 capital ship berths, 20 large docking bays for shuttles and light to medium freighters, 10 space drydocks capable of handling any vessel in the fleet, and 2 construction slips, one containing the skeletal framework of a new Imperial Star Destroyer that was in it when it was taken. Four Golan battle stations were connected to the station for self defense. Six gravity well projectors, taken from a pair of heavily damaged Interdictor cruisers, studded the corners, ready to go on line at the first sign of an unauthorized visitor to make sure they didn't get to hyperspace before they could be silenced.
Eventually, Pellaeon wanted to have the entire station towed into interstellar space, where the possibility of accidental discovery was even smaller than here, in orbit around an unknown planet. But it would take the entire fleet to do it, and he hadn't been able to convince Thrawn of any immediate need, nor whether the benefits would truly outweigh the time and trouble involved to coordinate that many ships. Pellaeon often found himself wishing that he had a Super Star Destroyer, for that purpose alone, if nothing else.
Pellaeon could barely see the ships in the drydocks at the far end of the starport, but he knew well enough which ones they were and what was being done to them. The Bellicose was having its conning tower repaired after its encounter with the Sun Crusher at Carida. A stolen Destroyer was in the final stages of its refit to Thrawn's fleet standards. The two Strike cruisers taken from Ambassador Furgan occupied a single drydock, undergoing a similar, but smaller scale, procedure. An old Katana fleet Dreadnaught had just begun its conversion to a new spyship. And in a drydock at the extreme end was the Gorgon, former flagship of now Lieutenant Commander Daala, undergoing an experimental modification utilizing some of the captured items from the Maw.
When the time comes, Pellaeon thought with a smile, the Rebels won't know what hit them.
Pellaeon's thoughts were interrupted by the approach of a Lieutenant carrying a datapad. He stopped and stood at attention, waiting for the Captain's acknowledgment. Pellaeon stared out the viewport for a few more seconds before turning to face the junior officer.
"Yes, Lieutenant, what is it?"
"A report for you, sir. From sick bay 11, regarding a prisoner."
So it had finally come. "Thank you, Lieutenant," Pellaeon said as he took the datapad.
Grand Admiral Thrawn wanted to start the interrogation of Mara Jade soon, but wanted her in excellent health at the time to be sure she wouldn't die before telling him what he wanted to know. He also needed a perfectly healthy subject to test his new interrogation techniques on. When the warden of the her cell block informed him that she was ill, Pellaeon lost no time in ordering a complete medical examination. Of course, he arranged for her to be carefully gassed unconscious, since there was no reason to let her know she'd been examined, and besides that, an unresponsive patient is much preferable to an actively resistant one.
He skipped over the formal headers and bureaucratic nonsense introducing the report and got right to the important information. Near the end, he found the chief medic's recommendation as to when the interrogation could start.
"Seven and a half to eight MONTHS?"
"Excuse me, sir?" the lieutenant replied.
"Never mind, Lieutenant."
This was completely unacceptable. Thrawn wanted the interrogation started within the week. Pellaeon scanned through the report to find what possible reason the medics had for recommending up to eight months wait. The biomedical jargon was far outside his usual mode of communication, and soon began giving him a headache. But eventually, a few words he understood caught his eye.
Pellaeon ignored him, reading it over several times to make sure it really said what he thought it said. He thought about the implications for a while before speaking to the Lieutenant.
"Lieutenant, carry on," Pellaeon said, his voice exposing his utter bewilderment. "I'll be in my quarters."
"Yes, sir," the Lieutenant replied before saluting and heading toward the bridge turbolift.
Pellaeon stood dumbfounded for a moment, checking the report again. He had half expected it to change since he last looked, but it hadn't. He left the bridge for his quarters where he would contact the medic whose name appeared on the report and ask him to confirm it. He tried to assure himself that the medic had made some mistake in the report, but somehow, he had the feeling that it was true. And if it was... Well, Grand Admiral Thrawn must be informed at once.
It all seemed too familiar. Almost every one of the pieces of art that surrounded her had either been in her personal collection or on her mental wish list. The nostalgia was truly intoxicating. She gazed in wonder at a particular piece that she hadn't seen in over twelve years, completely lost in memories.
"Lieutenant Commander Daala! I asked you a question!"
Daala snapped out of her trance and turned to face Grand Admiral Thrawn. "Yes, sir. I..."
Her glance drifted back toward the clearsculp, but she managed to pull her attention back to her superior.
"You weren't paying attention to the question, were you, Lieutenant Commander? Very well, we shall take a brief recess from discussing Maw information. Tell me, Lieutenant Commander, what is your opinion of my current display? You appear to have taken some interest in it."
"Well, sir, it would appear that we have similar tastes in art."
"Sir, I used to possess many of these pieces in my own collection. Several were originals," she boasted.
Thrawn just stared at her.
"But I haven't seen most of them since I was transferred to the Maw. I didn't expect to find out that you enjoy the same artwork that I do."
"I highly doubt that. Someday, I may show you more of my collection. But now, enough talk about art. We must resume our discourse."
"As you wish, sir," she sighed.
Thrawn was about to repeat his earlier question when the door to his chamber slid open and Captain Pellaeon entered, carrying a datapad.
"Captain, I do not wish to be disturbed! I am busy with the Lieutenant Commander now."
"Admiral, I have information here that I believe you will find well worth the interruption."
"All right, Captain. Bring it here. But it had better be good."
Pellaeon strode toward Thrawn's command chair, taking in a brief survey of the holographic art display in passing. He handed the datapad to the Grand Admiral and stood at attention before him.
"Sir, perhaps I should leave," Daala said.
"No," Thrawn replied. "You will stay here."
Thrawn looked at the datapad for a moment before addressing Pellaeon.
"Captain, what is this?"
"That, sir, is a medical report on prisoner number 1548."
"Yes, Mara Jade. I can see that, Captain. I don't have time to read it right now. What is the problem?"
"The problem, sir, is that the interrogation must not be started until eight months from now."
"I presume there is some sort of reason for this recommended delay?"
"Yes, sir, on datapage 14, second paragraph."
Thrawn forwarded through the report to the page Pellaeon had mentioned. He began reading the second paragraph...
Pellaeon could have sworn the entire room flashed red when the Grand Admiral's glowing eyes burst wide with surprise.
"Captain! Is this report true? Have you confirmed this?"
"Yes, sir. I spoke with the medic in charge of the examination. He assures me that each of the five tests he performed is 95 percent accurate, and each one provided the same result."
"Does she know about this yet?"
"She hasn't seen the report, if that's what you mean, sir. Doesn't even know she's been tested. Otherwise, well, I can't say. Her sickness could have tipped her off."
"Possibly. But either way, she would most likely deny it when confronted. Of course, since we have proof..."
Thrawn leaned back in his chair, deep in thought. After a few minutes, he spoke again.
"I wonder... Where was she at the time?"
"The fourth moon of Yavin. I've attached her recent travel itinerary to the report. It came in from my agent earlier today."
"Why in space was she on Yavin 4?" Thrawn said, half thinking aloud and half asking.
"According to my agent, it's recently been established as a Jedi training academy."
"By who? Certainly not Skywalker. He's no Master."
"Not according to my agent. He informed me that Skywalker declared himself a Master some time ago and put together a Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. He reportedly had about a dozen students at the time."
"Where did he find that many Jedi students?"
"I don't have that information, sir."
"Hmmm.. Skywalker is rather young to be a Jedi Master. That and the fact that he has taken on more students at once than any experienced Old Republic Master that I'm aware of speaks much about his opinion of his own abilities. We may be able to use this to our advantage. But regarding Jade, this answers my question." Thrawn paused, thinking for a moment and staring at a small storage compartment across the room, before adding, "And perhaps another one as well..."
Thrawn sat silently, deep in thought, until Daala's slight fidgeting broke his concentration.
"You have something to add, Lieutenant Commander?"
"No, sir," she replied. "At least, not at this point. I am unaware of the issues in this matter."
"Have you ever heard of the 'Emperor's Hand,' Lieutenant Commander Daala?"
She considered it for a moment before answering. "No, I don't think so, sir."
"You were probably already locked away in the Maw, then. The Emperor's Hand was a special agent of Palpatine himself, whose true identity was unknown to all but the Emperor's most trusted servants. The Emperor's Hand would travel throughout the galaxy in his name to carry messages and spy on the disloyal, and to carry out occasional assassinations. Following the Emperor's death at Endor, the Emperor's Hand disappeared for some time until she resurfaced during my campaign two years ago."
"That's what I said, Lieutenant Commander. Since then, she has taken a stand with the Rebellion, and seems to be aspiring to become a Jedi. Recently, she was captured by the Relentless and brought here." He handed her the datapad. "Captain Pellaeon has obtained some interesting information, as you can see."
Daala briefly studied the datapad, picking up on the medical terminology a bit sooner than her male superiors had.
Her eyes widened. "It seems that Jedi training wasn't the only thing she was doing on Yavin Four!" An evil grin crept across her face as she considered the situation. "Admiral, if this is handled properly, we have the making of a major scandal for the New Republic. Make them wonder what really goes on at Master Skywalker's academy."
Thrawn retrieved the datapad from her hands. "As I expected. Perfectly logical, of course. I'm sure you are quite familiar with the fear of a scandal, Lieutenant Commander. Your unusual advancement record alone is enough to raise questions. But concerning Skywalker, I doubt he would get himself into that kind of trouble. No, I think there's more here than that."
"Sir, my promotions had nothing to do with my relationship with Tarkin."
"Just out of the Academy, and already an Admiral? And you expect everyone to believe you jumped in rank from cadet to Admiral based on simulator scores alone? Keep this up, Lieutenant Commander, and I may demote you again. Or worse."
"Understood, sir," she mumbled.
Thrawn threw a glance at Pellaeon. "It does make one wonder, doesn't it, Captain?"
"What's that, sir?"
"Whether or not Tarkin's wife knew about it."
"Perhaps it wasn't only fear of the Emperor that influenced his decision to send her away."
"Good point, Captain. Lieutenant Commander, you are dismissed. Return to your post."
Daala, her face red with confusion and outrage, barely succeeded in controlling her emotions enough to force the words, "Yes, sir," from her lips. She turned and left without another sound.
"Sir, I'm not so sure it's a good idea to have her assigned to the Chimaera's shuttle bay. I don't like the thought of her prepping my shuttles."
"It's only temporary, I assure you. Once I have the information I need from her, I'll either reassign her to the Dreadnaught I told her about, or have her killed. Either way, she will be of no further concern."
Pellaeon considered it, and was about to mention his thoughts on the wisdom of allowing her continued existence, but the art display caught his attention at last. He had ignored it so far, but curiosity finally got the better of him.
"Studying Daala's art, sir?"
"Actually, Captain, I'm trying something different. Based on what I know about her, I've selected pieces that she is likely to favor. From her reaction, I would say I was successful."
"And what do these pieces reflect, sir? They seem to be some of the most famous pieces from across the galaxy. Even I recognize some of them."
"The Lieutenant Commander is interested in making herself seem important. Individually, these pieces have their own characteristics and meanings. Together, they show no understanding of art, only a desire to increase one's perceived status."
"I think I understand. To her, they were merely opulent decorations to impress others with."
"Very good. You are learning." He pressed a button on his chair and the display vanished. He stood, and walked to the storage compartment he had been staring at earlier. Opening it, he pulled out a lightsaber.
"Now, Captain, send for Mara Jade. I think it is time we confront her with what we know."
The stormtroopers shoved her into Thrawn's room again, but Mara managed to remain on her feet this time. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, and her breathing was slightly quicker and shallower than normal. The overwhelming presence of Thrawn's ysalamiri prevented her from using the Jedi calming techniques Luke had taught her, so she tried to take a deep breath, but her hyperactive lungs prevented it.
During her time in the cell, she had mentally prepared herself for the promised interrogation, trying hard to beat off the fear. But now that the time had finally come, the fear was back with a vengeance.
The last time she had been so afraid was when she and Luke had faced the mad Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth at Mount Tantiss on Wayland. That time, she had Luke with her to help calm her fear. This time, she was alone.
There was nothing else to do but grit her teeth, and turn to face the inevitable with as much dignity as she could muster.
In his usual place sat Grand Admiral Thrawn, and beside him stood Captain Pellaeon. No surprise there. What was surprising was the absence of any interrogation droids or specialists.
"Don't worry, you're not here to be interrogated," Thrawn said in response to her unspoken surprise. "Not yet, anyway."
"Is that so?" she replied sarcastically "I suppose you just called me here to have a friendly discussion?"
"You could say that."
"You'll excuse me if I don't believe you."
"As quick with the tongue as ever, I see."
"Yeah, well, I had plenty of time to work on my 'witty comebacks,' in the brig. And if you don't mind, I'd like to keep this short. I've got that hard metal slab you call a bed warmed up, and I don't want it getting cold again before I get back."
"Then I shall be brief. I have decided that you will not be interrogated in the near future."
Her face betrayed her initial surprise at the unexpected reprieve, then turned sour with suspicion.
"How generous of you."
"Also, it has come to my attention that you no longer wish to be identified as the Emperor's Hand. I apologize for my error."
"Oh, well, in that case, I accept your apology. I suppose it would be fair to apologize for some of the things I've called you. But I won't. Now, is there anything else, Thrawn? Or are you through making nice?"
"Not much of one for friendly conversation, are you, Mara Skywalker?"
"No. Sorry. In fact, I'm... Wait a second! What did you call me?"
"I called you the Emperor's Hand. But I've already apologized for that."
"That wasn't..." she started.
The thought of Thrawn even thinking that... How could he possibly... No, she told herself. Couldn't be...
"Oh, never mind. I must be imagining things. Yeah, that's it. That explains this entire conversation. Maybe your isolation treatment is working after all."
"Is that so? Then perhaps a longer period of isolation will be advantageous. Captain?"
"Call the guards, and have them escort Mrs. Skywalker back to her cell."
Mara gasped in disbelief. There was no mistaking what he had said this time. "Wait! How did you..." she blurted out, then stopped abruptly. Her gaze transformed from one of total shock to an icy stare at Thrawn. "I think you're the one who's been in isolation too long. Where did you come up with THAT?"
"Where did I come up with what, Mara Skywalker?"
"Give it a rest, Thrawn. You know perfectly well what I mean."
"Oh, you mean, about your relationship with a certain Jedi Master? Merely the combination of pieces of information I've come across."
"I think you've been jumping to conclusions, Thrawn."
"What you call jumping to conclusions, I consider logical extrapolation from certain facts."
Thoughts flashed rapidly through her head. What facts? What could have led him to that conclusion? But however he had done it, she knew she had to convince him of his error.
"Well, did you take into account that I hate Luke Skywalker and I want to kill him? That I had plotted for years to kill him for destroying my entire life?" she said in a scalding voice.
"There is no need to account for something that isn't true. Several things I've discovered easily dismiss that claim. Primarily the fact that you had in your possession his first lightsaber."
"So what if I did have it? Maybe I found it somewhere. Maybe I stole it from him."
"And you go to his Academy on Yavin Four and bring it with you? Not likely."
"Theorize all you want, Thrawn. You're wrong."
"No need to be so hostile, Mrs. Skywalker. Obviously, you don't want this becoming known to the entire galaxy. If you cooperate, your secret will be safe with me."
"You've got nothing more than an overactive imagination, Thrawn. I know it, and you know it."
"I have much more than you think. In fact, based on information I have received, your value to me has just increased tremendously."
"Oh? And what information is that? A marriage license, I suppose?"
"No, nothing of the sort. Suffice it to say that in time, you will provide me with an even more valuable captive. It's only a matter of waiting."
"I suppose you think you'll catch my 'husband' when he tries to rescue me?"
"Perhaps I will. But even if he doesn't come, once my new prisoner arrives, I'm sure he will do exactly what I want him to do."
"Sorry, you lost me. Your repulsors are on line, but you're not gaining any altitude. What are you getting at?"
"There is the possibility, however unlikely, that you are right, and he won't come for just you. But when he finds out that his wife and child are both captive, I'm quite sure that, being such a great and noble Jedi, he will do anything to get them back."
"What?" she gasped. "You're saying that I'm..." She paused briefly, then chuckled. "Oh, no. No. I don't think so. I think you're operating a few stormtroopers short of a garrison. You've lost more in the past two years than just time, that's for sure."
A sadistic smile spread across the Grand Admiral's face. "I'm afraid this medical report suggests otherwise," he said, picking up a datapad that had been on the arm rest of his chair and holding it out in her direction.
At first, she intended to refuse. But after a moment of consideration, she snatched it out of his hand.
Thrawn silently watched her as she read. From her facial expressions, he could tell when she reached the critical part. Her eyes flashed over it several times to confirm it, then she slowly lowered the datapad and stood silently, staring at nothing.
"You see, it is true."
"No," she replied slowly. "It's a fraud. You made it up."
"Deny it all you want, but it won't do you any good. You were sedated and examined two days ago, and this report shows the results. You are in excellent health, just pregnant." He paused a moment, then added, "I thought you'd be happy to hear the news. I only wish your husband were here so that I could offer him my sincere congratulations as well."
"It's not true! You're lying!"
"Believe whatever you like, but it won't change the truth. It won't be long until you won't even have the luxury of pretending I'm wrong. And another thing: I meant it when I said you will not be interrogated in the near future. We must keep the mother and child healthy, after all. Of course, if you ever have anything interesting you would like to tell me, I will be more than happy to listen."
Mara stood silently. Inside her, she felt every emotion she could possibly imagine and some she couldn't sweep over her in a confused storm. It couldn't be true. He had to be lying. But what if he wasn't? What if she really was with child? She found herself wanting to laugh, cry, scream, and curse all at the same time. But the total emotional overload left her unable to do anything.
"Nothing else to say? Very well, then. Captain, summon the guards."
Mara offered no resistance as the stormtrooper guards led her out of the Grand Admiral's chamber. Once she was gone, Thrawn spoke again.
"Captain, I think it is time for the fleet to pay Master Skywalker a visit."
"But sir, I thought you were going to wait..."
"Captain, Yavin Four is ripe for the taking. If we launch a surprise attack, we can capture the Jedi students, and perhaps even Skywalker himself. Then, at a later date, release them. Once we have sufficiently 'altered' their perspectives on life, that is. The opportunity is too good to pass up. And having the lovely Mrs. Skywalker as my 'guest' merely presents another set of possibilities. I wish to have as many options available to me as possible before we renew our campaign against the Rebellion."
Pellaeon considered the dangers of attacking such a group of Jedi, but when one of the ysalamiri in Thrawn's chamber caught his eye, his doubts vanished.
"We certainly have the means to do it, sir. I'll start the preliminary intelligence gathering immediately."
"No. We must not risk it. If anything tips off Skywalker, the whole plan may fail."
"As you wish, sir."