The New Republic task force dropped out of hyperspace a cautious distance from its final destination. And with good reason: returning to realspace too close to a large group of black holes can easily prove fatal to those foolish enough to try it. And yet, the task force, in defiance of conventional wisdom of most sentient beings, headed deeper into the Maw. They knew well enough that the course they were about to take had brought Han Solo safely through, but there were few among the crews who didn't have the feeling that they were about to do the dumbest thing in the history of the Galaxy.
A pair of gunships darted ahead as the convoy approached the far edge of the Maw's immense, randomly shifting gravity well. Though small, the gunships were well armed, and provided a good forward guard to protect the balance of the fleet from, or at least alert them to, a surprise attack. Another pair of gunships fell behind as rear guards, and the convoy's two escort frigates took flanking positions on either side of the core group, their fragile profiles a stark contradiction to their potent fighting capabilities. Above and below, triads of corvettes kept watch.
In the center, a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser served as flagship, the smooth curves of its organic-looking hull standing in sharp contrast to the cluttered, very artificial appearance of the three Assault Frigates that surrounded it. Dozens of starfighters swarmed around the heavy combatants and the squadron of vulnerable bulk freighters that hid in the shadows for safety. Farther in, the fighters would be recalled to their respective hangars, and the capital ships would pull into a line astern formation, precisely following Solo's course single-file. But until then, General Madine was taking no chances concerning an ambush.
"You sure this is the place?" Madine asked in an attempt to break the tension, though his dry, monotonous voice did a good job counteracting the intent.
Chewbacca roared a reply clearly sounding more annoyed than amused.
"Chewbacca says that he is quite sure this is the correct location, and requests that we move faster."
"I kind of figured that," Madine grumbled. "Sorry, but this is as fast as we're going to go. There's enough risk involved already."
Chewbacca growled again.
"He expresses his impatience to free his fellow Wookies," C-3P0 translated.
"Again, I got the idea." He turned toward the Wookie. "Look, we're about ten hours out, so you might as well go check the equipment again. Or study the attack plans. Or anything. Just find something to do to pass the time. When we're ready for the punch-through, you'll be the first to know."
A low rumble came from the Wookie's throat, which Madine took to be something like muttering, since Chewbacca turned to leave.
"Something else you could do," he interrupted. "Fix this droid. That arm is really beginning to annoy me," he said, pointing to Threepio's rigidly extended right arm.
"It's a long story, sir, and rather embarrassing..."
"I don't care. Either fix it, or let it hang limp. It's a hazard to the crew."
Chewbacca's urfing laughter made it obvious what he was going to do, as he prodded the golden droid in the direction of the door.
"Sir! I must protest! Please don't leave me to the whims of this hairy oaf!"
The door slid shut, cutting off the droid's cries, and leaving the planning room silent at last.
Stars zipped rapidly across the sky, and a strange chirping music filled the air, though for how long, neither knew. At some point, a pattern became apparent. Gradually, the stars began slowing down in their revolutions, and eventually, other details appeared. Divisions in the sky; solid, straight metal ones, also in a pattern, which did not move with the rest of space. In the periphery, other stationary things faded into existence. Lights, both steady and blinking, surrounded the field of stars, but were mostly concentrated below. Some time after that, the persistent feeling each had about there being someone else nearby was confirmed, as they became truly aware of each other's presence. But it was another small eternity before either spoke.
"Are we dead?"
"You're the Jedi Master. You tell me." He paused for a few seconds before adding, "Besides that, you've got experience."
Just as Luke opened his mouth to respond, a sudden jolt of electricity shot into his arm, sending him instantly and painfully jumping against his seat restraints.
Behind him, Artoo-Detoo beeped wildly at him. Now that he noticed the droid, he remembered the weird music, and realized that it had actually been Artoo, trying to get his attention. Finally fed up with his master's lack of response, he resorted to more aggressive tactics, extending his arc welder attachment and delivering a low power shock.
"Artoo! You didn't have to do that!" Luke said, rubbing his tingling arm. "I would have noticed you eventually."
Artoo blurted a reply that Luke easily recognized as something best left untranslated.
"Hey! I don't want to hear any more of that coming out of you!"
The droid emitted a sarcastically apologetic whine. Luke was about to scold him again, but was pre-empted by Han's chuckling.
"Well, I don't think we're dead. If we were, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be here with us."
"As opposed to, say, Threepio?" Luke offered.
"There's a fun thought. Eternal punishment at its worst."
Luke couldn't help but laugh at that bit of insight. Han joined in, thinking that it had been quite some time since he had seen his brother-in-law actually amused at anything. Leia would certainly want to hear about this.
As soon as the cockpit became quiet, Artoo immediately interrupted the silence with a nearly deafening burst of noise.
"All right, Artoo, that's enough!" Luke shouted, unbuckling his restraints. "What is it?"
The astromech whistled and chirped a few more times, then turned around and moved toward the doorway, rotating his head in such a way as to beckon the humans in that direction.
"Guess he wants us to follow him," Han said, rising to his feet.
Artoo led them to the inspection crawl space access panel for the Falcon's portside mandible. He had apparently checked it himself at some point, since the panel lay neatly against the bulkhead. The droid rolled up to the opening and illuminated the narrow space with one of his utility spotlights.
Han and Luke crouched beside Artoo to try to see what he was concerned about. The droid narrowed the light beam to highlight something at the far end of the mandible. The shape of the object was obscured by the Falcon's wires and machinery and somewhat distorted by a transparisteel emergency airlock, but a strange, multicolored reflection was evident.
"You don't suppose..."
"Yeah, I think you're right," Han said before walking across the hold to a small cabinet. He returned with a glowrod. "The only way to know for sure is to go in there and see for myself."
It took several minutes to reach it, but even before he got there, Han knew that it was indeed what he thought it was. The impact they had felt really had been Kyp's torpedo, but it had obviously failed to detonate. A dud? No, he could feel that there was something he was missing. He stared at the solar resonance torpedo for a while, thinking. Its shimmering reflection, looking so much like oil on water, made it hard to maintain a thought. As Han's mind wandered, he began to ponder what kind of metal it could be that made the deadly device so ironically beautiful...
He jerked up as the realization hit him hard, promptly followed by the even harder impact of his head with the girder above him.
Although the scout craft reported all's clear, the crews of every ship in the task force maintained their positions at general quarters. Scanner techs gazed with paranoia at their scopes, fearing the feedback signals that would indicate an ambush, freak gravity fluctuation, meteor shower, or any other lethal space hazard that could instantly spell the demise of the entire convoy. Gunners sat at their weapons stations, searching the glittering, inky expanse of space for any sign of trouble, their sweaty hands ready to pull the triggers at the slightest hint of danger. Ground troops waited aboard their transports, itching for the chance to infiltrate the target Imperial facility, but ready for the worst.
Whereas the ten hour journey to the Maw's "entrance" seemed to take a century, the actual penetration time seemed infinite. Swirling, glowing gasses and wild heat fluctuations danced against the ships' hulls. Though the shields proved adequate to ultimately protect against this abuse, the creaking and popping sounds of the hulls and odd vibrations in the floor panels succeeded in unsettling the crews even more than they already were. Though the gravity storm was surprisingly calm along their path when compared to the rest of the Maw, the random tugs the helmsmen had to fight against were a constant reminder of how precarious their situation was.
The final break into the safe-spot came suddenly, the gasses parting like a curtain. Directly ahead lay a solid, stationary object, whose very existence elicited a sigh of relief from all who could see it. One after another, the task force ships emerged into the safety of the space surrounding the Maw Installation. True to the scouts' reports, no ambush awaited them inside. Though the crews were quite relieved, General Madine had the eerie feeling that something was quite wrong.
Through the forward viewports, in front of a backdrop of incandescent gasses, Madine saw several asteroids clumped around some sort of spherical framework. Must be that Death Star. But the layout didn't look quite like it should have, according to Solo's report. He keyed the intercom, unable to shake the bad feeling he was getting.
"Yes General," came the prompt reply.
"Do you have any preliminary sensor readings?"
"Just a moment..." the captain replied in his gravelly Mon Calamari voice. "Yes, there are some readings in. Shall I send them to your monitors?"
"Yes, that would be fine. And tell the fleet to hold defensive positions and keep up the wide scanning until I say otherwise."
"Yes, General. And what about the transports in the hangar?"
"I'll let you know when it's time to launch them."
"As you wish."
Several monitors in the General's command room abruptly went from displaying their standby images to showing a variety of sensor readouts. After several minutes of staring at them, nothing had changed. The back of his neck tingled, knowing there was a trap. Recalling the Emperor's little surprise at Endor, he turned to study the arrangement of the Maw installation through the viewport again, this time with a pair of old macrobinoculars, a souvenir from a long-ago battle. Now magnified, it was certain that the framework he had seen was indeed the prototype Death Star. He looked carefully for the reportedly operational superlaser, but couldn't determine where it was pointed, due to the asteroids, which turned out, in some cases, to actually be inside the skeletal battle station. But a clear view of the side directly facing the New Republic ships told him where it wasn't. And it disturbed him.
"If not the Death Star, then what?" he mumbled aloud to himself.
His concentration was suddenly broken by a warning tone from one of the monitors. He had just turned to it when a voice came through the intercom.
"General Madine! There is a small transport powering up on one of the asteroids. It looks like it's trying to escape."
"Stop it! Ion cannons only. I don't want to lose anything, if it can be helped."
"Of course, General. Blue squadron is being dispatched."
"Good. But have the capital ships' gunners ready in case the B-Wings can't stop it. I don't want it to leave the area."
Madine watched the interception play out on his monitors. With the New Republic ships between the facility and the exit, the transport had little chance of escape, but it was obviously going to try it anyway. The B-Wings, though slower and less nimble than every fighter in New Republic inventory except the Y-Wing, were nevertheless much swifter than the inbound Imperial transport. The battle was brief: with two passes, the vaguely sword-shaped B-Wings quickly disabled the transport, which offered nothing more than sporadic bursts from its laser cannons in its own defense.
"Captain, send an assault shuttle to capture that transport. I want to know what's in it before we go in any further."
"Yes, General," Drakar replied, then urgently added, "Just a moment... Something's coming in on sensors."
"What is it?" asked Madine, turning to his own monitors and seeing the disturbance."
It took a few seconds before the Captain responded. "General, it looks like a large number of ships powering up on the largest asteroid, but they are obscured by the other asteroids, so we can't get a visual. We'll have to send in fighters."
"Blast! All right, Captain, instruct the fleet to surround and contain everything in the installation. And if it comes to a fight, ion cannons only. And conduct an intense sensor focus. If anything is, for some reason, destroyed, I want to at least have a readout of what it was."
"Yes, General Madine."
Madine looked out the viewport at the Maw Installation again, feeling completely out of place. As a General, he was a leader in the New Republic army, not navy. He had been selected to lead the Maw expedition for his battalion tactics, not fleet tactics. But he did know a few, which was enough for the emergency council to send him alone instead of tying up an Admiral as well. But already a feeling of inadequacy was building in him. In his gut, he knew the Imperials were up to more than just a panicked escape. But what?
Han awoke in the Falcon's medical station with a large lump on his head and a throbbing headache. He groaned as he rose to his feet, then fell back down again after nearly fainting. After a few deep breaths, he started up again, much slower. Still a little dizzy, he stumbled out of the med station and headed for the cockpit.
"Han! Look out!" Luke cried, and none too soon: Han was centimeters away from falling into an open access pit in the forward hold.
Han looked up to see Luke rushing to his side, a hydrospanner in his hand.
"Hey, you've got to be more careful. I don't want to explain to Leia how it was you broke your neck!"
"Yeah, funny. Keep that up, and I'll have the displeasure of explaining to Mara why it is she has to put you back in your body again. And on that note, what are you doing to my ship?"
"Trying to fix it, of course. It looks like Artoo caused a power surge when he tried to boost the Falcon's speed. We've replaced a few power couplings already," he said, pointing to a pile of objects that looked more like charcoal than anything else.
"I just installed those! Where is that trash can on wheels?"
"Calm down, Han. Artoo wouldn't have done anything to damage the Falcon on purpose. In fact, it was probably due to some of the modifications you and Chewie made. Artoo tried to shunt more power to the engines and something shorted. He's been trying to figure out what it was for a while now. By the way, how's your head?"
"Feels like a drum at an Ewok party."
"Well, I..." Han started. Suddenly, he remembered what it was that had made him jump in the first place. "Luke, is that torpedo still stuck in the hull?"
"I haven't touched it. I know how to replace a few power couplings, but dud torpedo extraction is something I thought you might know a little more about."
"That's the thing... It's not a dud."
"You're not making any sense."
"When you pulled me out, did you get a look at the casing?"
"Yes," Luke replied, still puzzled. "What about it?"
"It's made of the same stuff as the Sun Crusher itself."
"An indestructible warhead. Now you're really not making sense."
"No, not exactly indestructible. I'm guessing it's thinner, just tough enough to make it through to a star's core. Then, the casing probably melts off, and the thing uses the star's own energy to detonate."
"Good thing it didn't hit your reactor."
"The Falcon's reactor is powerful, but I don't think it's quite hot enough to set it off. But I'm not about to test that idea."
"So we can pull it out safely. But then what do we do with it?"
"I don't know. Maybe..."
The sound of an astromech droid interrupted him, as Artoo-Detoo rolled into the hold.
"What is it Artoo? Did you fix it?"
The droid chirped an affirmative, and then something else.
"Well, what does he want?" Han asked irritably.
"I think he wants us to follow him again. Come on."
"Sure. Why not?"
Artoo led them to the cockpit, where an incoming message light was blinking. Han slid into the seat and pressed the comm button.
"Hey! About time you woke up!" said a familiar voice.
"Lando?" Han asked, checking the signal frequency he was using.
"Yeah, it's me. You been asleep, or stuck up in the mandibles trying to fix that broken landing light?"
"Well, you could say I've been out cold for a while. Wait... what's this about a broken light?"
"Uhhh... well... Leia asked me to call you," Lando replied, anxious to change the subject.
"I see," Han said, a hint of accusation in his voice. "Then that's why you're using her private frequency?"
"Yes. She didn't have time to do it herself, so she asked me to, once Senator Bel Iblis let me have a break."
"Since when are you working with him?"
"Since yesterday afternoon. He caught me walking around reading a market report and decided that I could be doing more useful things. Did you know that Kessel spice has gone through the roof? And he thinks that playing data pusher for his intel team is more important!"
"All right, Lando, we get the point," Luke interrupted. "What did Leia want you to tell us?"
"Let's see... Oh, yeah. She said to tell you that the Sun Crusher did show up at Ord Narka, and left soon afterwards. What else... hmmm..." Lando said, probably looking at a datapad. "And she wanted me to ask you if you saw it, and if you're okay." He paused for a moment. "Wait a minute, that can't be right..." He paused again. "Yeah, that's what it said."
"You sound like Leia just handed a datapad to you on her way out the door," Han commented wryly
"Well, she did. Anyway..."
"We saw it, all right. Couldn't stop it, though."
"Did you talk with Kyp?"
"Yes," Luke said in a depressed tone. "We both did. But he wouldn't listen. We've got to try again."
"Okay. I'll let Leia know. Oh, and there was a message left at Luke's place."
Luke sat up slightly. "Who's it from?"
"I have no idea. There's no I.D. attached to it, and it's in the strangest encryption code I've ever seen. Funny, Threepio is never around when you need him..."
"Can you transmit the message to us?"
"Sure. In fact, I was prepared for that one. Ready to receive?"
"Just a minute," Han said, leaning forward to reconfigure the Falcon's receiver. "Okay, ready."
"Here it comes."
The transfer took only a couple seconds. Once complete, Lando signed off, asking to be informed when and if anything important happened, and implying a not-so-casual interest into the contents of the encryption.
Han punched up the message on his monitor. A series of flashing, seemingly random signals appeared, looking strangely familiar, and yet, so totally different from anything he was used to seeing. Luke appeared to be equally mystified.
"I'd almost say it's just a bunch of static."
"Almost," Han said vacantly. "But it's got a pattern. At least I think it does. I'm going to see if I can get any audio out of this. Be ready to cover your ears, though. It probably won't sound any better than it looks."
It didn't. The moment he keyed for audio, the cockpit was filled with a shrill, vibratto screech. Covering their ears did little to mask the spine-wrenching sound. Han shut it off as soon as he could convince his hand to leave his ear for a second.
"No, I think it sounds a whole lot worse than it looks," Luke observed.
"Yeah, really. I only hope it didn't fry my audio equipment..."
Suddenly, Artoo-Detoo started rocking side to side, blurting out an excited series of beeps and whistles, and grabbing the undivided attention of the two humans who had again forgotten about his presence.
"What, Artoo? Do you understand it?"
The droid rocked front and back, mimicking a nod.
"Well, let's see it!" Han said impatiently.
Artoo's holographic projector lit up, and a ghostly image of Talon Karrde took shape on the Falcon's control panel.
"Greetings, Skywalker. I've sent this message to both Yavin and Coruscant to be sure you get it. First, I must confess. Yes, I did have Ghent copy the counterpart encrypt between your X-Wing and astromech while you were on Myrkr. But don't worry, I haven't given it to anybody. Now to the purpose of this message. I had a meeting scheduled with Mara, and she never showed up. In fact, she hasn't been seen by anyone recently. At least, not by anyone who isn't himself missing. So, naturally, I thought she'd be with you."
"Wait," Han blurted out. "You mean Karrde knows about..."
"On Yavin, Han. Now be quiet."
"Sure," Han grumbled, leaning back in his chair again.
"...and I need to get in contact with her. I have reason to believe she's in danger. I'm sure she can handle it, but she should be warned. If you see her, ask her if she remembers the six cases of Menkooro that spoiled in transit to Corellia. She'll know what it means. And if you don't think you can be discreet enough, have Solo ask her. If you need to talk to me, contact Torve. He should be on Coruscant. He doesn't know where I am, but I've given him a way to contact me." That said, the image faded to oblivion.
"Well," Han sighed. "I guess we try to get in touch with Torve."
"Yes, but the Sun Crusher..."
"While we're there, we can see what Bel Iblis has set up, and maybe come up with some new strategy."
"All right, but we'd better ditch that torpedo. You've convinced me that it won't go off, but I don't think they'll be so ready to accept your explanation on Coruscant."
"Yeah," Han mumbled. "But we can't just drop it off somewhere. We're going to have to hide it. Suit up. We've got to pull that thing out and bring it inside."
Once all the ships were in position, completely encircling the Maw Installation, they began an intense sensor focus across the entire facility. While the sensor sweeps were being conducted, three squadrons of Y-Wings dove toward the largest asteroid. They pulled out of their dives close to the surface, flying a mere 10 meters above it in hopes of taking the powering-up transports on the other side by surprise and disabling them before they could get off the ground. More powerful B-Wings, their physical shape much less suited to ground skimming, provided ceiling cover.
General Madine watched the status reports impatiently, sweat forming on his brow, expecting the entire operation to turn upside down in a heartbeat. The sensor reports had yet to pick up more than empty buildings. Apparently, the Imperials had planned this escape, and were already packed and ready for it. But Madine could not shake his suspicions. What were they waiting for, anyway? Their cover was blown. They knew that. What did waiting gain them?
"General, we have a report from the Assault Shuttle," came Captain Drakar's voice from the intercom. "It appears to have been on a pre-programmed course. It's empty."
"A decoy! Tell the Y-Wings..."
"General Madine, this is Gold Leader," a voice said through the tactical comm. "We've reached the coordinates that the transports are supposed to be at, but there's nothing here except some type of power generators that I've never seen before. They must be specialized decoys, sir... My scopes still say that they're ships."
"Get out of there fast! And watch your backs!"
"Yes, sir!" Gold Leader promptly replied.
"Sensors are showing a massive power build-up somewhere in the center of the installation."
"The Death Star! Captain, get us out of here! Recall all the fighters immediately!"
Madine, his fears quickly becoming reality, took a glance out the viewport. The clump of asteroids swerved toward the upper left corner of the viewport as his cruiser dove to starboard, turning to leave. But its smooth maneuver was interrupted by a sudden jolt that nearly shook Madine off his feet.
"General, we've been caught in a tractor beam! The rest of the fleet reports the same!"
"Keep turning us around! Once we're facing away, go to full engine power!"
As he had ordered, the Calamari Cruiser continued its turn, eventually getting its engines pointing toward the tractor beam projector. Even punched to full power, the vessel barely moved. But it was better than moving backwards, like all the other, smaller ships of the fleet. The farther they got, the weaker the tractor beam's hold. A little farther, and perhaps it would break...
"My sensor technicians have confirmed that the power surge is indeed at the Death Star's core. However, they have estimated the surge to be far greater than historical superlaser output. If it doesn't fire soon, it will self-destruct."
Self-destruct? Could it be? Would any Imperial officer deliberately set a Death Star... a DEATH STAR... on self-destruct just to trap a task force? But still... someone had taken the time to set up the elaborate trap they were in, someone with the resources to clean out the whole installation and move the asteroids from where Solo said they were, someone who might just be able to build his own Superlaser and not worry about losing an old prototype... but the Superlaser was nowhere to be seen...
The explosion instantly destroyed the Death Star's framework and shattered the asteroids in a fireball that lit up the entire area, reflecting off of the bordering gasses, making it all the more intense. Two corvettes, pulled in almost all the way by the tractor beams, were swallowed by the firestorm, disintegrating without even a shout of alarm on the comm. Asteroid chunks scattered rapidly in all directions, colliding violently with anything in their path. An Escort Frigate, pulled in close, rolled laterally with the onrushing fragments, its hull plating being torn off and thrown clear by the centrifugal forces until nothing remained.
Gold Squadron's Y-Wings, though too small to attract the attention of the tractor beams, nevertheless fell victim to the disaster. Attempting to escape destruction, the wave front caught up with them, picking off one or two at a time until all ceased to exist.
Elsewhere, a gunship caught by a fighter-sized rock spiraled end-for-end, out of control, until eventually colliding with one of the fleet's Assault Frigates, severing the engine compartment from the larger ship in its ensuing explosion.
Aboard the flagship, sirens wailed, lights flashed, and panic gripped the crew. The vessel shook with every impact and every explosion of equipment. General Madine picked himself up off the floor and staggered to the intercom, the blood running down his face stinging his eyes and the screams of dying beings ringing in his ears, relayed to him by the task force's comm channel.
"Captain! What happened!?"
"General," a staticy human voice replied. "This is Lieutenant Borsen. Captain Drakar is dead. It... it just blew up, sir. We've been badly damaged by asteroid fragments. The bridge is gone, and the aft section is a mess, sir. All the engines are out, and we have serious hull ruptures all over the place. The damage control crews are heading in, but we have no idea exactly how extensive the damage is, or how long it will take to get the engines back on-line. Or if we have any left to get on-line."
"What about the rest of the fleet?"
"It doesn't look good, sir."
Madine took a look out his viewport again, just in time to see a boulder the size of a Star Destroyer's shield generator sphere swat a freighter out of existence. Pieces of his task force floated everywhere, some trailing glowing bits of liquid metal. In the distance, he saw an Assault Frigate - the Morning Star, he believed - punctured right through the hull with a rock as big as an airspeeder. A tongue of flame spewed out both sides from a ruptured standby reactor, making the hole grow as it melted away the surrounding metal, until the conflagration reached one of the main reactors, finishing the job in an instant.
Madine looked at the floor for a moment, not wanting to look back up, but quickly forcing himself to. He made out the shape of the fore section of another Assault Frigate, spiraling away, heading for the gasses forming the "walls" of the gravitationally safe-spot they were in. Madine found his macrobinoculars and took a closer look. Though cracked, they offered enough resolution for him too see the half-ship twisted by the gravity and melted by the heat as it passed through the veil. The sight wrenched his stomach, his head turning away reflexively. He had seen lights still on aboard that ship, and thought he had seen silhouettes passing in front of them...
He looked out again, now noticing for the first time the spire of metal jutting out of his own ship. He stepped to the side of his viewport to get a better viewing angle, only to discover the shocking magnitude of the situation: a piece of the Death Star's structure had impaled his cruiser, extending a full kilometer upward, and who knew how far downward. He stared at it dumbfounded, unable to believe what he saw. But looking past the spear that had pierced them, and with it as a reference, he noticed something that caused an even greater chill to fall over his entire being.
"Lieutenant, are we moving?"
"I don't know sir, I... Yes?" He spoke briefly with someone else, then turned back. "Yes, it appears that we are drifting somewhat."
"Then tell the repair crews they'd better hurry up, because we're floating right back out into the Maw!"